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(Amman) - Jordan should scrap its proposed amendments to a law regulating nongovernmental organizations and instead propose a new law that would guarantee freedom of association, Human Rights Watch and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network said today in a letter to Prime Minister Nader al-Dahabi. The proposed amendments to the 2008 Law of Societies do not rectify major deficiencies that violate the right to free association.

"It makes no sense to keep trying to cobble together amendments to a law that takes the wrong approach to begin with," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "It is time to start over with a new law guided by Jordan's obligations under international law."

In their letter to al-Dahabi, Human Rights Watch and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network called on the government to revisit aspects of the 2008 law limiting the activities and membership of nongovernmental organizations and their ability to function independently from the government.

In 2006, a coalition of Jordanian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) proposed a draft law, but the government rejected it, instead submitting an alternative draft law to parliament that was even more restrictive than the old Law of Charitable Societies of 1966. Parliament approved the government's draft with minor changes in 2008, and King Abdullah signed it into law in December 2008.

An outcry by local and international NGOs prompted al-Dahabi's government to offer a new round of consultations with NGOs under the aegis of the social development minister, Hala Latouf. But the resulting amendments proposed by the government fell short of NGO expectations. The parliamentary session expected for June is to vote on these government amendments.

The current law prohibits associations from pursuing any "political objectives" and activities that violate "public order." Both terms are overly broad and invite governmental abuse. The law also discriminates against non-Muslim religious organizations, by restricting the activities they are allowed to engage in, and excludes non-Jordanians and children from establishing associations in Jordan, in violation of the country's international treaty obligations.

The 2009 proposed amendments would ease the process of establishing an association by describing more clearly the duties of the registrar of associations, but they continue to grant the government ultimate political control to decide whether an association can incorporate. The inclusion of a right to challenge such denials judicially provides inadequate redress, since the law includes no criteria for denying permission and the government could act lawfully by denying permission without reason.

The 2009 proposed amendments do not address the 2008 law's disproportionate government control over the work of NGOs, requiring them to submit annual plans to the government in advance, to admit government officials to meetings, and to seek prior approval for any foreign funding. The 2008 law also allows the government to remove an NGO's management and replace it with state functionaries and to dissolve the NGO for repeating minor infractions of the law. The new amendments would actually increase governmental control, allowing it access to an NGO's finances at any time without cause or a judicial warrant. These measures make it difficult for associations to operate independently of government, the defining feature of nongovernmental organizations.

International law guarantees the right to form associations, and any restrictions placed on that right in a democratic society must be necessary for national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, and be the least restrictive possible. The Jordanian government has not made clear how the severe restrictions fulfill any of these conditions.

"The government's attempts to exert excessive control over NGOs deprives Jordanians of the benefits of open discussion about public policies and services," said Whitson.

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