Kyrgyzstan’s parliament voted today, May 12, to reject the ‘foreign agents’ bill, a restrictive draft law that would have significantly endangered freedom of association.
The bill, introduced in September 2013, was so called because the initial draft would have required nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive foreign funding and engage in vaguely-worded ‘political activities’ to register as ‘foreign agents’ – a phrase that can be interpreted as “spy” or “traitor.” It was modelled on a similar law that came into force in Russia in 2012.
Russia has used its own “foreign agents” law to carry out intrusive inspections of hundreds of NGOs. Some groups have had to close their doors.
Before Kyrgyzstan’s bill came to a vote, it’s more problematic components were removed – including the requirement that NGOs register as ‘foreign agents.’ However, local groups remained concerned that, if adopted, the bill would serve to undermine freedom of association for NGOs.
This is an important decision by Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, the Jogorku Kenesh. Kyrgyzstan is Central Asia’s only parliamentary democracy and today’s rejection of the bill is a reminder of the positive role the Jogorku Kenesh can play in upholding Kyrgyzstan’s human rights commitments.
Kyrgyzstan’s dedicated community of human rights activists – a group I’m proud to call NGO colleagues – played a significant part in bringing about the outcome of today’s vote as well. They collaborated to develop advocacy strategies and media campaigns in response to progression of the bill, met government officials and deputies, and helped organize public and parliamentary hearings on the bill. They also urged international bodies, including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to express serious concern about the draft bill. Both domestic and international statements of concern, including by Human Rights Watch, about the ‘foreign agents’ bill form an important backdrop to today’s vote.
Today’s vote hardly means an end to the country’s human rights problems. There are other highly-worrying legislative initiatives, human rights groups in southern Kyrgyzstan have been harassed in recent years, and human rights defender Azimjon Askarov is still in prison despite the recent UN Human Rights Committee decision calling for his immediate release.
Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentarians did the right thing today. Let’s hope their actions are the starting point for further steps by Kyrgyz government officials to uphold human rights, ensure freedom of association, and protect the space for Kyrgyzstan's courageous rights activists.