International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) supports calls by local NGOs to members of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament to reject a repressive and stigmatising draft law primarily targeted at foreign-funded civil society organisations. This draft law comes on the heels of another highly restrictive NGO law, which is currently under discussion in Kyrgyzstan, and would seriously jeopardise the crucial work carried out by civil society groups with international support in the country. The EU and other actors from the international community should speak out against both of these flawed and dangerous legislative initiatives and insist that the authorities of the country comply with their international human rights obligations with respect to freedom of association.
A set of amendments to Kyrgyzstan’s Law on Non-Commercial Organisations, as well as other legislation affecting such organisations was put forward for public discussion by Member of Parliament Nadira Narmatova on 21 November 2022. Narmatova is a well-known advocate of tighter restrictions on NGOs and was one of the initiators of a previous draft ‘’foreign agents’’ law, which parliament eventually voted down in 2016 following widespread criticism by civil society and the international community. Narmatova’s new draft law draws on the previous initiative, which was inspired by and largely copied from corresponding Russian legislation. Some of the provisions of the new draft law duplicate those of another recent draft law on NGOs elaborated by the presidential administration, of which IPHR and other NGOs have also called for the withdrawal and which Kyrgyzstan’s Ombudsperson has requested the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Venice Commission to review.
Similar to the draft law prepared by the presidential administration, Narmatova’s draft law provides for excessive, unjustified and discriminatory restrictions on the right to freedom of association in violation of international standards. In a joint appeal disseminated on 23 November 2022, more than 30 representatives of Kyrgyzstani human rights NGOs called on members of parliament to reject the new draft law.
While the draft law does not use the term ‘’foreign agents’’, it proposes introducing another stigmatising label for non-profit groups which receive financial assistance from foreign governments, international and foreign organisations, or other foreign sources. Should the draft law be passed, such groups would be required to register as ‘’performing the function of a foreign representative’’ if they are considered to engage in ‘’political activities”, which are defined as including activities to ‘’influence decision-making of state bodies’’ with the aim of ‘’changing public policies pursued by these bodies” or to ‘’shape public opinion’’ for similar purposes. Groups that fail to register as organisations ‘’performing the function of a foreign representative’’ could have their activities suspended for up to six months without a court decision.
These provisions would in effect mean that the draft law could be used as a tool to arbitrarily obstruct and discredit the work of civil society organisations that receive funding from foreign sources. The draft law states that activities in a number of specifically listed areas, such as science, culture, art, sports, and health and social protection, would not qualify as “political activities”. However, given the broad and ambiguous definition used, legitimate and important activities implemented by civil society groups outside those areas could be interpreted as amounting to ‘’political activities’’. It is of serious concern that the draft law is based on the faulty premise that civil society groups seeking to influence public decision-making and public opinion on issues of concern to them and their target communities are engaged in undesirable ‘’political meddling’’, although such activities are a core function of civil society organisations. Further, it is disturbing that the draft law treats foreign funding of non-profit organisations as a potential threat and singles out such organisations for particular scrutiny in this regard, although freedom of association entails the right to seek and receive resources both domestically and internationally. As pointed out by local NGOs, state bodies and commercial organisations are also large recipients of foreign assistance in Kyrgyzstan – a fact which is not considered problematic by decision-makers.
Narmatova’s draft law also introduces new reporting obligations for non-commercial organisations, especially for those registered as organisations ‘’performing the function of a foreign representative’’, and grants broad powers to authorities to oversee and interfere in the activities of non-profit groups. Similar to the NGO law proposed by the presidential administration, this draft law tasks the Ministry of Justice with supervising civil society groups’ compliance not only with national law but also with their own statutes, and empowers this body to request access to a range of documents of such groups; send representatives to attend their events; and carry out inspections of their activities. Organisations registered as ‘’performing the function of a foreign representative’’ could be subjected to both scheduled and unscheduled inspections. If the Ministry of Justice finds that civil society groups have acted in violation of their statutes or national law, it could issue written warnings to them with a request to rectify alleged violations.
As detailed by local civil society groups, the draft law also features several other problematic provisions and imposes additional restrictions on the activities of non-commercial organisations that do not apply to commercial organisations. Among others, it foresees criminal liability for establishing, leading and participating in a non-commercial organisation whose activities are considered to ‘’harm the health of citizens’’ or to ‘’impel citizens to refuse to fulfil civic obligations or to commit other unlawful acts.” The penalties for these vaguely worded offenses would include large fines or imprisonment for up to ten years. Branches of foreign non-profit organisations could be de-registered aby authorities for failing to provide required information or acting contrary to their statutory goals.
We fear that Narmatova’s draft law, if adopted, would in particular be used against civil society groups that are inconvenient to those in power because they scrutinise and criticise the authorities’ actions and demand accountability for human rights violations and other misconduct. These fears are reinforced by the fact that the draft law was introduced in a context in which civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists and others who are critical of authorities have been subjected to growing pressure in Kyrgyzstan in recent months.
The draft law falls seriously short of Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights obligations, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the provisions of which the country is bound to respect as a state party to the covenant. Kyrgyzstan is also required to effectively implement its obligations under the ICCPR in order to maintain its status as a beneficiary of the GSP+ scheme, under which it enjoys generous trade preferences with the EU.
In accordance with the ICCPR and other international human rights standards, the Kyrgyzstani authorities should allow civil society groups to carry out their work without unwarranted state control and interference and maintain a safe and enabling operating environment for them. They should safeguard the freedom of civil society groups to seek, receive and use resources from both domestic and foreign sources an integral and vital part of the right to freedom of association and refrain from restricting access to resources on the grounds of their origin or stigmatising those who receive foreign funds.