H.E. Hala Latouf
Minister for Social Development
Ministry for Social Development
Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
Dear Minister Latouf,
Thank you for sending me a copy of your letter to Human Rights Watch, which I received on Saturday, June 6.
I have carefully studied your comments in reply to our May 12 Memorandum to Prime Minister Nader al-Dahabi of Jordan concerning the 2009 Proposed Amendments of the 2008 Law of Societies, of May 12. Your letter, which seeks to refute some of the concerns we raised about the draft amendments, does not address several other points our Memorandum raises. We take your silence on those issues as a sign of your agreement that members of parliament currently studying the draft amendments to the 2008 Law of Societies should, at a minimum, consider the following changes:
Make registration of a society automatic after its founders have fulfilled formal criteria for its establishment. The government should not have decision-making power over the registration of associations. The current draft unnecessarily restricts the right to form associations.
Introduce into the law the requirement that government action against societies, such as denying registration or for foreign funding, can only be taken for specific and narrow reasons, which should be exhaustively set out in the law for government action against societies, such as denying registration or for foreign funding. Without the legal requirement limiting government action only when there are specific and narrow reasons, judicial challenges to government action against societies are hard to substantiate. The burden should be on the government to adequately justify its action within a defined legal framework.
Protect the rights of children and non-Jordanians living in Jordan to form associations without discrimination on the basis of age or nationality. The current draft violates Jordan's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights.
Lift the exclusion of former felons and those convicted of "breaching honor or integrity" from the list of those barred from forming an association. This measure stands in contrast to current efforts to rehabilitate convicted criminals who have served their criminal sentence and unnecessarily infringes upon the rights of such persons to freely associate.
Lift the requirement on societies that they admit as members all persons who meet the society's qualifications for membership and grant societies the freedom to choose their organizational structure. By mandating even involuntary association with others in certain cases, this measure conflicts with the right to freedom of association, which includes the freedom not to associate with others.
Lift the requirement on societies to submit to the government an annual plan of intended activities in advance. Democratic governments should have no business imposing such obligations on a society.
Cancel the provision lifting bank secrecy provisions for a society. Societies should not be subject to financial oversight mechanisms different from that of other corporations. Addressing Suspicions of fraud or other financial crimes should be the purview of the judiciary.
I would like to take the opportunity to also respond to your comments in reply to our criticisms of the draft amendments.
You dismiss as "unfounded" our objection to the provision that prohibits nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from pursuing "political objectives that fall within the framework of the work and efforts of political parties." This provision, you write, is designed to support the growth of both political and NGO efforts by preventing a mixing of the two. To the contrary, we believe that an essential element of freedom of association in a democratic society is that NGO activity can usefully inform party-political activities and provide much-needed expertise. At any rate, NGOs have every right to engage in matters of public policy. A more practical way to address concerns about NGOs engaging in party politics would be to exclude NGOs who do so from certain financial benefits they may enjoy as long as they serve the public interest, such as tax and custom duties exemptions or eligibility for funds from the government-administered NGO fund.
Second, you dismiss our concern that the term "public order," which NGOs may not violate under the amendments, is overly broad. We do not accept your argument that prohibiting NGO activity likely to disturb" public order" is practiced by many countries in the world . The fact that many other countries have less than ideal laws should not be an excuse for Jordan. Regarding your statement content that the term "public order" is not vague, but well-rooted in Jordanian jurisprudence, we remain skeptical, and invite you to send us examples of such jurisprudence. We believe that bans on activities disturbing "public order" introduce broad and vague restrictions that government officials are likely to abuse to prohibit legitimate and lawful NGO activity.
Your third point, that some religious activities are prohibited for all NGOs, and not just some, is directly contradicted by the wording of the proposed amendments. They would specifically restrict only "non-Muslim religious entities" service provision, banning, for example, legitimate advocacy activities currently allowed for Muslim entities. Furthermore, only non-Muslim entities would be prohibited from infringing on the Muslim creed and subject to special supervision under the amended law. By contrast, and as our Memorandum states, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs and Holy Sites is specifically tasked with "missionary affairs" by its own statutes. No law should openly discriminate on religious grounds in this manner, regardless of previous laws that may have done so or the apparent lack of objection from concerned non-Muslim entities that you cite.
Your fourth point, that the proposed amendments for the first time grant non-Jordanians the right to found NGOs has no bearing on the fact that the current law would continue unlawful discriminatory treatment based on nationality, regardless of any minor improvements the proposed amendments might contain. The law provides no valid reasons for subjecting non-Jordanian NGO founders to discretionary prime Ministerial approval.
Your fifth point about automatic registration of NGOs in cases in which the government fails to respond to a request for registration within a certain time frame does not address our criticism of government powers to turn down a request. The amendments would do nothing to alleviate the danger that the government's denial of a registration request is not bound by clear, formal criteria, and thus become difficult to challenge in court. You go on to misrepresent another of our criticisms, saying Ministry officials are not "obligated" to attend NGO meetings. Indeed, they are not. However, we had objected to officials' having the discretion under the law to attend certain meetings, and the fact that NGOs had no right to bar them from certain meetings. Democratic governments should have no business attending NGO meetings uninvited.
Your sixth point, that mandatory declaration of funds by an NGO and government financial monitoring is a "security obligation" does not help to clarify the legitimate purposes of such a requirement. If foreign funds are being used by an NGO for illicit purposes, then prosecutors can initiate legal action. If foreign funds are not used in contravention of Jordanian law, then their use should not be prohibited. Subjecting foreign funding to discretionary ministerial approval (as we wrote, and not Cabinet approval, as you claim we wrote) only detracts from the freedom of NGOs without improving legal compliance.
In your seventh point you again impute to us criticisms we never voiced, yet you ignore those we did make. You say that the proposed amendments do not "intend" to remove an NGO's management, and that removal would only be used in well-defined circumstances. We do not impute any intention, but object to the empowering of the executive branch, rather than the judiciary, to do so in the first place and without having to show proof of unlawful conduct.
Your last point closely follows the previous one about the removal of an NGO's management, arguing that the government's powers to dissolve an NGO are limited, and do not include cases of "minor infractions," as we wrote. We disagree. To give you an example, if an NGO twice failed to record the minutes of its General Assembly meetings, despite a government warning about this failure, then the government could legitimately dissolve the NGO. We are sure you would agree that such measures are excessive.
I thank you for taking the time to reply to some of our concerns. However, the clarifications and responses you provide have failed to assuage our concerns that , under the 2008 Law of Societies and the 2009 proposed amendments, the powers of the executive branch over the the establishment, functioning, and dissolution of NGOs infringe unacceptably on the right to freedom of association as set forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Poiltical rights, which Jordan has ratified.
Both Human Rights Watch and coalitions of Jordanian nongovernmental organizations have independently reached such a conclusion.
We urge the members of parliament to take seriously Jordan's international treaty obligations and to work with the government to produce a new Law on Societies fully in compliance with the right to freedom of association.
Sarah Leah Whitson