(New York) – The Pakistani government should immediately withdraw new regulations that will severely restrict operations by international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The “Policy for Regulation of INGOs in Pakistan,” announced on October 1, 2015, will worsen the already deteriorating working climate for international humanitarian and human rights groups.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. 

© 2015 Reuters

The new regulations require all INGOs to register and obtain prior permission from the Ministry of Interior to carry out any activities in the country, and restrict their operations to specific issues and geographical areas. The ministry is broadly empowered to cancel registrations on grounds of “involvement in any activity inconsistent with Pakistan’s national interests, or contrary to Government policy” – terms that have vague meanings and can be used for political reasons to target critical organizations or individuals. Previously organizations registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), which focused on financial oversight of INGOs.  

Pakistan’s federal interior minister, Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan, told the media, “NGOs working against Pakistan’s strategic, security, economic, or other interests will have their registration cancelled.”

“Pakistan’s new rules allow the authorities to kick out international groups for anything they might do or say,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The regulations are an invitation to arbitrary use of power and will put at risk any international organization whose work exposes government failures.”

Pakistan’s government has the responsibility to prevent fraud, financial malfeasance, and other illegal activities by INGOs, but Pakistan already has laws and regulations that address such concerns, Human Rights Watch said. The new regulations will severely restrict rights to freedom of association and expression for Pakistanis working for INGOS, as well as for foreign nationals. These rights are protected under the Pakistani constitution and international law.

International groups make significant contributions to Pakistan in safeguarding and promoting health, nutrition, education, sanitation, food security, and the rule of law and human rights, among many other areas. International humanitarian and development organizations working in Pakistan employ thousands of Pakistanis, contribute hundreds of millions of dollars (USD) to the national economy, and, working alongside their local partners, reach an estimated 20 million Pakistanis with assistance and services every year.

Under the new regulations, all international organizations are required to obtain permission in advance from a government “INGO committee” chaired by the secretary of the Ministry of Interior before carrying out any activity in Pakistan. The committee will be able to rescind that permission at any time, for vaguely defined reasons.

“This new policy harkens back to an era of military rule when the government used phony claims of threats to national security to muffle critical voices in civil society,” Adams said.

The new rules will also be a colossal bureaucratic burden: all INGOs already registered in Pakistan will have to reapply for registration. Groups are required to complete and submit new registration applications within 60 days. The INGO committee has sole authority to grant approval of registration. Approval will only be granted after consultation with federal and provincial authorities on their acceptance that the activities align with the “national priorities of Pakistan.” INGOs that have been critical of government policies or practices could be at particular risk of being denied registration, Human Rights Watch said.

The regulations require that INGOs submit a list detailing all planned projects and budgetary allocations to the Economic Affairs Division (EAD) and the Ministry of Interior. The groups are required to have financial audits conducted only by government-approved auditors. INGOs are also forbidden from raising funds and receiving donations locally unless specifically authorized by the Pakistani government.

The regulations provide for a right of appeal only on decisions by the INGO committee to cancel registration. The appeals process, to a proposed Special Ministerial Committee, will be final, denying recourse through an independent judicial process.

“The government should not enact a policy that will deprive Pakistanis of valuable, often life-saving services and information,” Adams said. “The Pakistani government should facilitate the vital work of international groups – not hinder it with overbroad and vague regulations.”