Jordan's newly elected deputies would be wise to draw on the experience that the country's civil society representatives have built up over the past decade. This would give guidance when they face the task of critically reviewing laws that the government wants them to pass. One such law, however, is designed to foreclose this opportunity by shutting civil society out of Jordan's policy debates.
Soon, the new deputies will have to deliberate the draft Law on Charitable Societies and Social Institutions, agreed by the previous cabinet on October 9. This draft law maintains the repressive provisions of the existing 30-year old Law on Charitable Societies, which gives the Ministry of Social Development extensive powers to interfere in the establishment and running of nongovernmental organizations. The ministry would have the power to take over NGOs, as happened last year to the Islamic Center Society and the General Union of Voluntary Societies, or simply dissolve them , as happened in 2002 to the Jordanian Society for Citizens' Rights . The government would also have the right to veto NGOs' board members and its bylaws, even if they do not violate any law.
But the draft law would also extend the government's attack on the independence of civil society in Jordan. It would make foreign and domestic donations conditional on government approval, and, in place of direct donations, set up a government-run fund to finance NGOs. Furthermore, individuals seeking to establish a voluntary civil organization would need to contribute JD100,000 of their own funds, and foreign NGOs would have to spend at least JD250,000 per year to receive a license, which the minister may arbitrarily withhold.
In April, the government imposed similar conditions on non-profit companies, which had hitherto been easier to establish and to run free of government influence. In attempting to justify this imposition of government control, the Controller of Companies said that these non-profit companies had "become a Trojan horse for spotlighting criticism and for insulting national and official institutions . on the pretext of promoting human rights." Rather than silence NGOs in the name of misplaced patriotism, deputies should strengthen the ability of NGOs to voice criticism and inform the political debate based on the analysis and experience that gather through their work in various fields.
The government has also abused the Law of Public Gatherings of 2004 in an attempt to transform what could be an active and vocal civil society into an extended arm of the government. Under that law, passed earlier by decree in 2001, the organizers of a public meeting must obtain advance permission from an administrative governor, rather than just send the governor notification.
This change in law signaled a change in policy. Not only has the government long prohibited most demonstrations critical of its foreign policy or domestic economic strategies, it has also withheld permission for NGOs to meet in workshops, seminars and conferences. In doing so, the government has shown yet again that it does not value the independence of such organizations or their critical contributions. Earlier this year, it barred political parties from protesting the proposed Political Parties Law, and the governor prevented NGOs from holding seminars to form an election-monitoring coalition.
The freshly elected deputies have themselves experienced the need for a level playing field that is properly scrutinized. The documented allegations of fraud surrounding the municipal elections in June and similar alleged incidents in the parliamentary elections are the clearest example yet that Jordan needs a strong, independent civil society to reinforce the values of human rights and democracy and to make them a reality.
Jordan should harness the energy and experience of its people to tackle human rights shortcomings and social concerns. The freedom to form associations with lawful goals and to assemble freely without undue interference by government authorities are essential to achieving those goals.
To achieve this, the deputies of Jordan's 15th parliament should reject the new draft law on charitable associations, and amend the law on public gatherings. The new deputies need to protect, rather than restrict, the freedoms of Jordan's civil society.