El presidente boliviano, Evo Morales durante una conferencia de prensa en la sede de las Naciones Unidas (ONU); Nueva York, 08 de enero de 2014. REUTERS / Eric Thayer

(New York) – Bolivia’s restrictions on the work of nongovernmental organizations violate human rights defenders’ right to freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said today.

On August 5, 2015, Human Rights Watch submitted an amicus brief to the Bolivian Constitutional Court, in a case brought by the Bolivian Ombudsman challenging the constitutionality of a 2013 law and presidential decree that grant the government broad powers to dissolve nongovernmental organizations.

“The way Bolivia’s law and decree on nongovernmental groups is written invites arbitrary, politically motivated decisions that undermine their right to freedom of association,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Bolivia should immediately repeal these restrictions to ensure that human rights defenders can do their job freely, which is critical in any democratic society.”

The way Bolivia’s law and decree on nongovernmental groups is written invites arbitrary, politically motivated decisions that undermine their right to freedom of association. Bolivia should immediately repeal these restrictions to ensure that human rights defenders can do their job freely, which is ritical in any democratic society.

José Miguel Vivanco

Americas director

Under the decree, any government office may ask the Autonomy Ministry, which is charged with strengthening autonomous local governments and indigenous communities in the country, to revoke an organization’s permit to operate if the group carries out activities different from those listed in its bylaws or if the organization’s representative is criminally sanctioned for activities that “undermine security or public order.” The Plurinational Assembly, the national legislature, may also request revocation of permit in cases of “necessity or public interest.”

The Ombudsman’s submission specifically challenged the constitutionality of a provision in the Law of Legal Entities that provides that nongovernmental organizations and foundations must specify in their bylaws “their contribution to economic and social development,” and another in the presidential decree that provides that organizations can be dissolved if they “fail to comply with [official] policies and rules.”

The challenged provisions contravene Bolivia’s obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights, ratified by Bolivia in 1979, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Bolivia in 1982, Human Rights Watch said. Both treaties impose the obligation to respect the right to freedom of association and to ensure the free and full exercise of that right for everyone, without discrimination.

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights has noted that in the case of human rights defenders, the right of freedom of association is a “fundamental tool that makes it possible to fully carry out the[ir] work.” The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has repeatedly noted that “[s]tates have the duty to provide the necessary means for human rights defenders to conduct their activities freely...[and] to refrain from placing restrictions that would hinder the performance of their work.”

In 2013, the UN Human Rights Committee, the body that oversees Bolivia’s compliance with the ICCPR, stated that Bolivia “should also amend its legislation on the legal status of NGOs in such a way as to eliminate the requirements that place excessive restrictions on their ability to operate freely, independently and effectively.”

The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association has noted that associations “should be free to determine their statutes” and has stressed that any restrictions on the right to association should respect the principles of “pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness.”