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HRW Concerns Regarding Jordan's Draft Law on Professional Associations

Human Rights Watch is writing out of deep concern regarding a new draft law on professional associations (the “Professional Associations draft law”) that your government presented to the Lower House of Parliament on Sunday March 6, requesting that it be given urgent status and reviewed in an expedited manner.

Human Rights Watch is writing out of deep concern regarding a new draft law on professional associations (the “Professional Associations draft law”) that your government presented to the Lower House of Parliament on Sunday March 6, requesting that it be given urgent status and reviewed in an expedited manner. The Professional Associations draft law presents a major setback to Jordan’s earlier commitments to reform and to guaranteeing the rights of Jordanian activists and civil society to assemble and express their views freely.

The law defines an “Association” in Article 2 as a “Professional Union established by practitioners of the same profession and therefore subject to this law”. The proposed law covers 12 professional associations that have an active membership of more than 120,000 people. The associations covered by this draft law are: the Jordan Engineers Association, Jordan Medical Association, Jordanian Lawyers Association, Jordanian Agricultural Engineers Association, Jordanian Pharmaceutical Association, Jordanian Press Association, Jordanian Artists Association, Jordanian Construction Contractors Association, Jordanian Dental Association, Jordanian Geologists Association, Jordanian Veterinary Association and the Jordanian Nurses and Midwives Association (together, the “Associations”). The Associations are jointly represented by the Professional Associations Council (PAC) and typically assemble and operate out of the Professional Associations Complex in Amman.

We believe that the proposed law unduly restricts the freedom of these Associations to organize and to express their political views, both collectively as individual Associations or by their individual members. Furthermore, the draft law injects into the organization of these Associations a level of governmental control and influence that undermines their purpose as independent, non-governmental organizations.

We believe that the Associations serve an important role in representing civil society in Jordan, and should be free to express their political views and to assemble without government control or hindrance. We are aware that the Associations have hosted gatherings, meetings, and lectures, have issued publications, and have spoken to the media on issues such as the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Iraq. We are also aware that the Associations have voiced strong criticism over the government’s policies in the past years, as well as the policies of the United States and Israeli governments. In their pursuit of such activities, the Associations are doing exactly the type of thing other such professional associations do around the world – representing the views and beliefs of civil society on any number of topics, including social and political topics, encouraging legitimate debate, and providing the public with an opportunity privately to organize and assemble.

We have closely followed the recent standoff between the government and the Associations, after repeated government allegations that the associations are meddling in politics by engaging in activities that are irrelevant to their mandates.

In this regard, leaders of the Associations have said that the government presented this draft law in haste and without any consultation with them or with the public at large, in an attempt to circumscribe and control the activities of the Associations. Indeed, the proposed law follows a number of attempts by the government to clamp down on activities of these Associations. For example, the government banned four events organized by the Associations since the beginning of this year, including a sit-in scheduled for March 7th at the Professional Associations Complex to protest the draft law. Police forces did not allow members of the Associations to access the Associations’ headquarters, and therefore few Associations’ members were able to join the sit-in.

Last December, a member of the Jordanian Engineers Association, Ali Hattar, presented a lecture at the Professional Associations complex calling for the boycott of American goods and companies. Jordanian authorities detained him afterwards and charged him with slandering government officials. As you know, Human Rights Watch called attention to the government’s reliance on its penal laws to stifle Hattar’s freedom of speech, and we continue to monitor his case.

We are concerned with several provisions of the new draft law. First, it continues to require Associations to obtain pre-written approval from the Interior Ministry to hold a public gathering or meeting, as Article 24, Sections A and B, stipulate. As such, it impedes the ability of private, non-governmental organizations to meet and discuss any subject of their choice- freely, without government permission. The law further requires the Associations to limit their topics of discussion at any of their “professional meetings, councils and committees meetings” to “professional matters” strictly limited by Article 4 of the draft law to the following: “training,” “cultivating scientific research,” “publishing specialized scientific publications,” “ cooperating with relevant specialized groups on planning and developing higher education programs and training programs,” “introducing scientific developments relevant to their professions,” “exchanging information and research with institutions and universities in and out of the Kingdom,” “providing employment opportunities for members,” “insuring proper living conditions as well as medical and social insurance for members,” “ providing advice to official bodies in relation to the practice of a profession and its development,” “establishing funds that provides services for members,” and “settling disputes among professional members either by reconciliation or arbitration.”

If an Association wants to discuss any non-“professional” matter at one of its meetings, then the draft law requires the Association to request advance governmental permission from the interior ministry pursuant to the Public Assembly Law, under which permission must be requested for any public meetings, rallies, demonstrations or other forms of public assembly, and which the government has used in the past to restrict the ability of political parties and activists to organize demonstrations and marches. Effectively, the government is telling Associations that any meeting to discuss any topic other than “professional” matters will be treated by the government as a public assembly requiring strict government control and supervision.

Human Rights Watch is aware of the government’s claim that it is implementing the same requirements on assembly and freedom of speech that it has required of political parties. This argument is unconvincing for two reasons. First, professional associations are not analogous to political parties, in that they are not organized for the purpose of obtaining political power in the government through election to office and are not; they are, instead, professional associations where members should be allowed to discuss freely any matter of interest and importance to them, and to express their concerns on political matters publicly and freely. Second, Human Rights Watch believe that the restrictions that the Jordanian government has imposed on political parties with respect to their freedom of expression and assembly are, in any event, inappropriate and contravene Jordan's obligations under international human rights law.

Members of the Associations have stated that they believe the new proposed voting system to be an attempt by the government to control the leadership of the Associations and to dismantle the influence of the Islamic Action Front and nationalist groups over the majority of Associations. The draft law attempts to control the elected leadership of the Associations by controlling the voting procedures for each Association. The draft law subjects the twelve Associations to voting requirements that will prevent the general membership of each Association from directly electing their presidents and governing councils.

Article 11, Sections A, B, C, D, E, F and G, stipulate that each Association must organize an election of local association councils in each governorate, to form an intermediary general assembly that then will elect each Association’s governing council and president. The proposed voting system will substantially lower the ability of any coalition or block to form a majority in any Association’s governing council, because members of each Association will be allowed to vote only for one candidate in a local council and will have no opportunity to elect leaders to the governing council or presidency of an Association. Instead, the draft law vests the power to elect the leading body of each Association, the governing council, in the intermediary assembly of local councils.

In all events, private, non-governmental organizations should be free to elect their leadership by whatever means the members of each organization sees fit. Governmental control over the election procedures for such private associations represents an unwarranted intrusion into the inner governing structures of these organizations.

Finally, the draft law attempts to create a disciplinary structure controlled by the government that will have the authority to suspend members from the practice of their profession for a variety of vague, ill-defined infractions, including “harming the morals and conduct of the profession,” acting “in ways that harms the honor of the profession” or “directing the Association out of its professional mandate or …in ways that undermine the Association.” Particularly because the draft law prohibits Associations from discussing non-“professional” matters at meetings, for example, a member who discussed political affairs at an Association meeting could be suspended from practicing his or her profession for having directed an Association “out of its professional mandate” or “undermining” an Association.

The powers that the disciplinary committees will have to punish members are serious and severe. The law stipulates the creation of “disciplinary councils” in each of the twelve associations. Articles 15 through 18 require the formation of “one or more disciplinary councils” that will have the power to suspend members from practicing their profession for up to one year pending a resolution of the disciplinary proceeding brought against them to impose fines on the member, and even to ban the member from practicing his or her profession permanently.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the government proposes to control two out of three appointments on every disciplinary council, which effectively gives the government complete control of the council. Article 15, Section B of the law requires that the membership of the disciplinary councils include a judge, to head the Disciplinary Council, chosen by the Higher Judicial Council; a member appointed by the Association Council and a member appointed by the government ministry with authority over the relevant profession related to the association. Article 15, section D requires disciplinary council decisions to be made either by unanimous or majority vote of the council members, which means that the government will always control the vote. This represents an extraordinary and inappropriate intrusion in to the independence of, and blatant attempt to control the membership of, these private organizations.

Human Rights Watch is aware of the government’s concerns regarding the current organization and conduct of the Associations, and potential abuses of power by their leadership. We are also aware that these concerns are real, in light of the fact that Jordanian law makes membership in an Association mandatory for persons in the relevant field, and that Associations retain the power to expel members from an Association, and hence from the right to practice their profession. We recognize the serious allegations of the government that Association Councils through their existing disciplinary committees have taken action against members, including expelling them from an Association, for expressing political views in conflict with the views of the Association leadership.

For example, we are aware that on September 2000, the Jordanian Press Association (JPA) expelled its Secretary General, Nidal Mansour, because of his involvement in founding an organization promoting free press, the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ). The expulsion of Mansour came after the JPA’s disciplinary council charged him with violating the Association’s by-laws by not working full-time as a journalist and for accepting funds from for CDFJ’s activities. We have also followed with concern the conduct of the Jordanian Engineers Association (JEA), which in August 2004 punished one of its members, Raed Qaqish, who is also a member of the Jordanian parliament, after he appeared on a television show that also hosted an Israeli official. The JEA banned Qaqish from attending any official meetings or event organized by the JEA. Qaqish contested the JEA decision before the Jordanian High Court of Justice, which ruled in favor of his plea and reversed the JEA’s decision.

Such misuse of disciplinary procedures against members is definitely a problem, which we do believe that the Jordanian government needs urgently to address. The draft law presented by the Jordanian government, however, far from addressing the misuse of power and authority by the Associations, only exacerbates the problem by introducing a disciplinary process under direct governmental control. Furthermore, the draft law only further restricts the freedom of expression of Association members, and thus civil society at large, by restricting the subjects that Association members may discuss freely, without fear of government retribution.

It appears that the real problem with Associations is the requirement of mandatory membership in professional associations. Human Rights Watch believes that this requirement is unreasonable, and infringes the right to freedom of association and expression, which Jordan, as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), is pledged to uphold. Article 22 of the ICCPR, Section 1 stipulates “[E]veryone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” By requiring mandatory membership, the right to freely chose membership in a union or association is violated. The Jordanian government should seek to amend this mandatory law rather than to tinker and control the operation of the Associations themselves, or to limit the nature of discussion that Association members may have.

Human Rights Watch welcomes Jordan’s public commitment to supporting the freedom of its citizens, including their right to assemble and organize freely. This draft law on Associations, however, is a significantly negative indicator of the government’s actual willingness to fulfilling its commitment. Human Rights Watch has hoped that the Jordanian government would amend its existing laws and regulations that impede freedom and free expression. This new draft law is a very disappointing setback to the promises of the government.

We urge you to withdraw this draft law in light of its significant restrictions on the freedom and independence of professional associations, and on the freedom of their members to express their views, including political opinions, unfettered by government penalty.

Sincerely

Sarah Leah Whitson
Executive Director, Middle East and North Africa Division

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