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(New York) – A new law in Indonesia places unnecessary and onerous restrictions on the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Human Rights Watch said today. Indonesia’s donors should press the Indonesian government to amend the law to ensure basic freedoms and a vibrant civil society.

On July 2, 2013, Indonesia’s parliament enacted the Law on Mass Organizations (“NGO law”) in the face of outspoken opposition from religious groups, labor unions, human rights organizations, and environmental groups.

Provisions of the NGO law infringe upon the rights to freedom of association, expression, and religion, and provide the government wide latitude to obstruct NGO work. The law imposes a variety of vague obligations and prohibitions on NGO activities, and severe limitations on the creation of foreign-funded organizations.

“The NGO law is a throwback to the repressive Suharto era by subjecting the activities of civil society groups to excessive and unpredictable government control,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “Indonesia’s NGOs play a vital role in the country’s development and should be nurtured, not stifled, by government regulation.”

After more than three decades of authoritarian rule ending with the fall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia now has a vibrant civil society with thousands of NGOs working in fields from development to human rights. The new law contains numerous restrictions embodied in a 1985 law, the Law on Social Organizations, passed during the Suharto dictatorship, but which have largely not been enforced since then.

The new law requires all NGOs to apply through the Home Affairs Ministry for official approval to operate. The law does not provide any details about the official approval application process, timelines for official approval, or penalties for noncompliance.

The NGO law empowers the government to decide on whether an organization has violated the law, but requires the government to “consult” a court prior to suspension of an NGO’s operations. The law does not provide any details about this consultation process. The government can unilaterally impose a six-month suspension on an NGO’s operations if the court does not respond within two weeks of consultation. The law allows NGOs to appeal a suspension to the Supreme Court, but does not elaborate on the details of that process.

The NGO law obliges organizations to adhere to respect for monotheism, regardless of their religious or secular orientation, Human Rights Watch said. The new law, like the 1985 statute, requires that NGOs adhere to the “breath, soul, and spirit” of the concept of Pancasila, or “five principles,” an official state philosophy that dictates “Belief in the one and only God.” The law forbids NGOs from espousing “anti-Pancasila” creeds including atheism, communism, and Marxist-Leninism. The NGO law specifically states that NGOs must “maintain the value of religion and belief in Almighty God,” regardless of their religious or secular orientation. In February, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, warned that these provisions in a draft version of the law could violate freedom of religion or belief particularly for individuals with “non-theistic and theistic convictions.”

“The NGO law is being used as a vehicle for Orwellian thought police,” Kine said. “The state has no business telling NGOs or anyone else what they can and can’t believe.”

The new law, as with the 1985 statute, places a variety of vague requirements on NGOs that leave them exposed to improper government interference in their work, Human Rights Watch said. These include obligatory support for the “national unity and integrity of the Unitary Republic of Indonesia” as well as “the value of religious, cultural… ethical and moral norms.” The new law specifically prohibits “blasphemous activities” by NGOs against any of the six religions officially recognized under Indonesia’s 1965 blasphemy law. No definitions are provided for these activities, which places NGOs at risk of arbitrary or unfair interpretations of the law by hostile government officials. In February, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of peaceful assembly and association, Maina Kiai, stated that such prohibitions in a draft version of the law were “illegitimate and should be amended accordingly.”
The NGO law subjects foreign NGOs in Indonesia to all new bureaucratic controls. The law bans foreign NGOs from activities that may “disrupt the stability and integrity” of Indonesia or “engage in activities that disrupt diplomatic relations.” Foreign nationals who want to start an NGO in Indonesia must have at least five consecutive years of legal residency in Indonesia, and must deposit the sum of IDR10 billion (US$1 million) of their personal wealth in the organization. The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, expressed concern in February that such provisions would hamper the human rights work of civil society in the country, “in particular of foreign societal organizations.”

“The new NGO law ominously suggests a less tolerant official approach to civil society in Indonesia,” Kine said. “The Indonesian government needs to recognize NGOs – both domestic and foreign – as assets to a democratic society, not as threats. Indonesia’s donors and friends should push for removal of provisions in this new law that are hostile to basic freedoms and the operational independence of NGOs.”

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