President Rafael Correa should drop a proposed decree that would unjustifiably impose government control over Ecuador’s nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said today. The powers it would grant would undermine the groups’ independence and compromise their role as a civil society check on government, Human Rights Watch said.
In early December 2010, the Correa administration published a proposed presidential decree that would grant the government far-reaching powers to control the work of nongovernmental organizations. The proposal sets out new procedures required to obtain legal status and says the groups would have to submit to government monitoring. International organizations would have to go through a screening process to seek permission to work in Ecuador. The decree would grant the government broad powers to dissolve groups for “political activism,” for example, and to oversee their work with constant monitoring. The decree is reportedly set to be adopted on December 20, according to civil society representatives.
“The broad powers this proposed decree would grant government officials to oversee and dissolve civil society groups would severely limit the ability of human rights organizations to do their work independently,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Groups lucky enough to pass the first hurdle and get authorization will think twice before questioning government policies.”
Under the proposed decree, Ecuadorian groups would be required to file a series of prescribed, certified documents with the government to obtain legal status. The president would have authority to grant – or deny – legal status to all nongovernmental organizations, except for those that cover only regional or municipal issues, which would have to make a similar application to the appropriate regional or municipal government. To operate lawfully, groups would have to be granted legal status and then register with a new Unified Registry of Non Governmental Organizations.
The government officials who authorized the legal status would have broad monitoring powers to make sure the group only carries out authorized work. To determine whether the group “is active or not and if its work is in accordance with the scope and powers” it was granted, the authorities would be able to request “general information on the organization,” “details” about its work, and information on its “projects.” All this information would be included in the Unified Registry and published on the Internet.
The language in the proposed decree about conditions under which officials could dissolve a group is vague, including “not fulfilling or mov[ing] away from the objectives for which it was created, such as [by participating in] political activism” and “compromis[ing] national security or the interests of the state.”
International groups seeking to work in Ecuador would have to provide documents that “demonstrate [their] legal existence.” The government would then ask Ecuadorean embassies and consulates in countries where the international group operates for information on the “legality, solvency, and seriousness” of the organization. Based on this information, it would decide whether to sign an agreement with the international group to authorize it to work in Ecuador. All projects carried out by the group would have to identify its “objectives, goals, specific tasks, and source of funding.”
In addition, the decree would impose vaguely defined prohibitions on international groups – for instance, they would not be allowed to conduct activities that “are incompatible with public security and peace.” It also would allow government officials to monitor their work and to revoke the international agreement if they decide the group violates it. If the organization carried out work without permission, the government would revoke the international agreement and work permits granted to the organization’s staff and family members.
“Of course groups must operate within the law and be sanctioned if they don’t,” Vivanco said. “But with this decree, the government would essentially decide what the groups may say or do, seriously undermining the role they play in democratic societies.”
As part of their duty to promote and protect human rights, governments must ensure that human rights defenders are allowed to pursue their activities without reprisals, threats, intimidation, harassment, discrimination, or unnecessary legal obstacles. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights held in 2003 that, “[r]espect for human rights in a democratic state depends largely on human rights defenders enjoying effective and adequate guarantees so as to freely go about their activities, and it is advisable to pay special attention to those actions that limit or hinder the work of human rights defenders.”
The rights to freedom of expression and association may only be limited in very specific circumstances that are necessary for a democratic society. The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders states that “everyone, acting individually and in association with others, shall be subject only to such limitations as are in accordance with applicable international obligations and are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”