EGYPT: New measures to further obstruct NGOs’ work

23/07/2014
Urgent Appeal
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Copenhagen-Geneva-Paris, 23 July 2014-

The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), express their deepest concern over the Egyptian government’s latest measures to hamper the exercise of freedom of association by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). On 18 July, the Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs published a notification in the newspaper Al-Ahram requiring all civil society entities to register as NGOs within a period of 45 days (see unofficial translation below).

This announcement comes in the midst of efforts to pass a repressive law on associations, in a context of continuously deteriorating human rights situation, marked by a crackdown on civil society, including peaceful protesters and human rights defenders. The current draft law contains many restrictive provisions that violate Egypt’s Constitution, rulings of its Supreme Constitutional Court as well as its international and regional legal standards adhered to by Egypt.

The draft law stipulates that all organisations would be banned from operating under any other legal status than the one prescribed by the draft law or even as an unregistered group. The Ministry of Social Solidarity (MoSS) would be granted sweeping powers, including the discretion to annul NGOs’ internal decisions, to interfere with their board composition, to suspend their activities by administrative decree and to control their funding.

Despite Egypt’s constitutional provisions guaranteeing the right to register an association by simple notification, the MoSS may object within 60 days on the grounds that planned activities are prohibited by the law. Banned activities include vague concepts such as “threatening national unity or contravening the public order or morality”, as well as “engaging in any political activity”. Left undefined, this formulation can be used to deny registration to independent human rights groups. The draft law would also require NGOs to notify the MoSS should they wish to cooperate with a foreign association, which could also include interaction with international and regional human rights inter-governmental mechanisms. Approval of the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics would also be required to conduct field research or opinion polls. To enforce this, state civil servants would be allowed to enter the premises of any entity working in a field considered as NGO-related to verify their work as long as the NGO is notified in advance. The draft law does not specify how much time should elapse between notification and visit.

To regulate the funding and registration of international NGOs, the draft law foresees the creation of a “coordination committee” composed of state officials, including representatives of the Ministry of Interior and National Security. This committee would be given broad discretion to oversee a de facto authorisation procedure for the establishment of international organisations. It would also control and approve of any foreign funding of NGOs, even though the draft law does define grounds for objecting to requests for foreign funding. Ultimately, this would not only lead to the interference of the security services in the activities of independent human rights groups, but also put such groups at risk of dissolution by court order, as receiving foreign funding without prior approval would constitute a violation of the law. Moreover, the draft law gives the MoSS the right to seek dissolution if the association is unable to realise its purposes.

Our organisations are extremely worried that the adoption of the draft law would severely hamper international NGOs’ ability to operate legally in Egypt. International NGOs would be denied registration if they receive funds from foreign governments, to “support the goals of a political party in its country of origin” or “breach State sovereignty”. The MoSS, with approval of the committee, would have the right to cancel the permit of a foreign organisation if it considers its activities illegal. Foreign NGOs would only be allowed to work on what the draft law describes as “society needs”, which would be determined according to official development plans. Finally, accredited international NGOs would need prior permission from the committee in order to receive foreign private funding, rent or buy premises and transfer money outside Egypt.

The draft law imposes hefty sanctions such as a minimum sentence of one year in prison and fine of 100,000 EGP (about 10,000 EUR) for a wide range of activities, including receiving or transferring funds without the government’s prior approval (including the collection of donations), the establishment of an association under a different legal form, the establishment of an association that later conducts banned activities, (such as a law firm), cooperation with foreign NGOs inside Egypt without the prior permission of the coordination committee, conducting field research without the government’s prior approval, conducting activities in spite of an administrative or court ban and cooperating with NGOs outside of Egypt without following the procedure set in the law (notification to MoSS and the passing of 60 days without objection).

This draft law is the third version to be discussed since 2013. On 11 February 2013, EMHRN, FIDH and OMCT expressed concerns about a first draft law very similar to the current one. An improved second version of the draft law was discussed with civil society in July 2013. On 26 June 2014, the MoSS organised a consultation to discuss the current version of the draft law with NGOs. However, we regret that few leading human rights NGOs were invited to the meeting and that throughout the legislative process, the Egyptian authorities have failed to act in a transparent and inclusive manner.

The right to freedom of association is enshrined in article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and reaffirmed in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. As stated by the EU, “the international community, the EU included, has a duty to advocate for a space to operate for both NGOs and individuals. The EU should lead by example, creating peer pressure through diplomacy and political dialogue with governments and by publicly raising human rights concerns”.

Therefore, EMHRN and the Observatory urge the EU and the UN to support and convey civil society’s concerns outlined above to the Egyptian authorities and call on them to:

- Withdraw the draft law and prepare a new draft conforming to the Egyptian constitution and international human rights standards. In particular, the Egyptian authorities should refrain from adopting this law by decree before the Egyptian parliament is in place, as was the case with the recent assembly law (known as the “protest law”), which has resulted in an increased repression of human rights defenders;

- Engage in an inclusive and genuine dialogue with civil society organisations, including those criticising the authorities’ human rights record.

Lastly, the EU should reaffirm that its level of political, financial and technical engagement will be dependent on progress achieved by Egypt with regard to democratisation, human rights and gender equality, of which freedom of association is a key element.

Unofficial translation of the notification published in Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram on 18 July

“Within its efforts to ease obstacles faced in the conduct of civil society participation and convinced of the importance and necessity for all entities operating in Egypt to respect laws currently in force in the country; and within the framework of the Ministry of Social Solidarity’s support to Egyptian and foreign civil society organisations aimed at advancing civil society participation in the Arab Republic of Egypt; (the Ministry of Social Solidarity) urges all entities conducting civil society activities without registration to quickly adjust their situation in accordance to the provisions of the Law of Associations and NGOs No. 84 of 2002 and its executive provisions, within a period of no longer than 45 days after the date of this notification. This can be done by contacting the Department of social solidarity competent in the geographic area where the association conducts its activities to adjust their status and to avoid questioning/accountability issues in accordance with relevant laws in force.”

For further information, please contact:

· EMHRN: Nicole Lambert : + 32 471 39 35 28

· FIDH: Arthur Manet / Audrey Couprie : + 33 1 43 55 25 18

· OMCT: Delphine Reculeau : + 41 22 809 49 39

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