Jordanian authorities have proposed far-reaching amendments to the country’s associations law that, if promulgated and implemented, will severely hamper the ability of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to form and operate. The amendments place onerous restrictions on the formation of civil society groups, grant the government legal authority to dissolve groups on vague grounds or deny their ability to obtain foreign funding without justification, and violate international human rights law protections on the right to free association.

The amendments, drafted by a committee under the Ministry of Social Development, were released for consultation with civil society groups on March 17, 2016. The current council of ministers may approve the amendments as a temporary law, or the amendments may remain on hold until after Jordan’s parliamentary elections on September 20.

Registration and Dissolution of Associations

The amendments impose further registration criteria to an already restrictive 2008 associations law. The 2008 law, along with its 2009 amendments, prohibits the formation of groups that pursue any “political objectives” or undertake activities that violate “public order.” Both terms are overly broad and make it easy for the authorities to refuse registration. For example, one Jordanian activist told Human Rights Watch that she applied to register an organization in 2011 to advocate for the right of women to pass Jordanian nationality to their children, but that authorities rejected her registration application because the organization’s aims were categorized as “political.”

Article 4 of the 2016 proposed amendments adds further restrictions, including prohibiting the registration of any group whose aims violate “national security, public safety, public health, public order, public morals, or the rights and freedom of others.” The amendments also stipulate that upon the recommendation of a relevant minister the registration committee may “dissolve an association if it turns out practices violate these purposes.” The list of criteria by which authorities may refuse to register or dissolve a civil society group is taken directly from article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which holds that “[n]o restrictions may be placed on the exercise of [the right to freedom of association] other than those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others” (article 22.2).

However, while the draft amendments acknowledge the permissible criteria under the ICCPR by which the right to freedom of association may be restricted, they do not show how any such restrictions are “necessary in a democratic society,” which is also required by article 22. According to the International Center for Non-Profit Law (ICNL), case law around the phrase “necessary in a democratic society” has found that “‘necessary’ does not mean ‘indispensable,’ ‘admissible,’ ‘ordinary,’ ‘reasonable,’ or ‘desirable’… In other words, in order for Jordanian authorities to restrict the right to freedom of association based on ICCPR article 22 criteria, they must first show how such measures are actually necessary for a democratic society, which the amendments do not address. The authorities would also need to show why each measure taken is proportionate, i.e. the most severe restrictions on freedom of association, such as dissolving an association, would need the strongest possible justifications.

Articles 2 and 8 of the proposed amendments increase the number of Jordanian citizens required to serve as “founders” of a nongovernmental group from 7 to 50, making it very difficult for small groups of citizens to form NGOs.

The proposed amendments also cancel a provision of the 2008 law that required authorities to respond within 60 days to a group’s registration application, after which the request would receive automatic approval. Under the 2016 proposed amendments, after 60 days the registration request would be automatically rejected in the absence of a government response.

In all cases the authorities maintain ultimate authority to decide whether citizens can establish an NGO. Though the existing law includes a right to challenge such denials in administrative court, this provides inadequate redress since the law includes no criteria for denying permission and the government could act within the law by denying permission without reason. Hence any judicial review would merely evaluate whether authorities violated any legal procedures when denying permission rather than the basis of the decision itself.

International law guarantees the right to form associations, and any restrictions placed on that right in a democratic society must be necessary for national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, and be proportionate, the least restrictive possible, and non-discriminatory. The Jordanian government has not made clear how the severe restrictions fulfill any of these conditions.

Foreign Nongovernmental Organizations

The proposed amendments also place new restrictions on foreign NGOs that operate “local branches” inside Jordan. Under the 2008 law, these organizations are prohibited from raising any funds in Jordan, but can transfer funds from their headquarters to the Jordan branch without approval. Under article 9 of the amendments, such inter-organizational transfers will require the approval of Jordan’s council of ministers, which can reject such requests without providing a justification.

In addition, the amendments will end open-ended registration for local branches of foreign nongovernmental organizations, instead only allowing them to operate “for a period decided by the [Registration Directorate] Board.” The amendments do not state whether organizations can renew their registration or must go through the entire application process from the beginning.

Though many foreign organizations in Jordan operate legally via memorandums of understanding with Jordanian ministries, outside the scope of the associations law, other organizations, including Human Rights Watch, are registered as local branches.

Foreign Funding

The proposed amendments impose other onerous restrictions on local groups wishing to receive foreign funding. Under the current law, local groups can only receive foreign funding if they obtain approval from Jordan’s council of ministers. The proposed 2016 amendments  add a further step, requiring groups to first submit applications to receive foreign funding to the Registration Directorate under the Ministry of Social Development, stating the amount, method of reception, and purpose for which the money will be spent. If approved, this request would then be sent to the council of ministers for approval. The council of ministers is not required by law to state the reason for which it rejects a foreign funding request.

Unlike the 2008 law, under which funding requests are automatically approved after 30 days if the government does not respond, the new amendments would revoke automatic approval, in affect allowing the government to reject requests by not responding.

The amendments require that nongovernmental groups who receive foreign funding to submit a separate report and budget for each approved funding apart from the group’s normal reporting requirements.

The amendments also require that any foreign funds for which groups are seeking approval be deposited into a “safe account” under the “associations fund,” which is administered by the Ministry of Social Development. It is unclear from the amendments whether a foreign donor would be able to recover a monetary grant from the “safe account” if authorities refuse a group’s funding request.

The new restrictions on receiving foreign funding appear to provide a legal framework for a foreign funding control mechanism that the council of ministers imposed on all local civil society groups in October 2015. Under this mechanism, NGOs are required to submit foreign funding approval requests to the Ministry of Social Development, providing extensive information about the project to be supported by the funding, and demonstrating how the project accords with Jordan’s national and developmental goals as well as the Jordan Response Plan for Syrian refugees. Authorities are not required to provide any justification for rejecting such funding.

Jordanian authorities have justified the new measures by arguing that they needed to better organize the nongovernmental sector and avoid duplication of work by various groups. The foreign funding control mechanism, however, effectively gives Jordanian authorities the ability to choose what projects NGOs are permitted to carry out in each sector, thus undermining their ability to function free of disproportionate government interference.

Since the imposition of the foreign funding mechanism, local groups told Human Rights Watch that in practice all foreign funding must receive approval from the Ministry of Social Development, Council of Ministers, Ministry of Planning International Cooperation, and any other ministry linked with a project to be implemented. The groups said that the approvals can take weeks or months to obtain, and that if any government body in the chain of approval rejects the project the funding is denied. Three foreign diplomats told Human Rights Watch that authorities had rejected requests by local groups to receive funding from their respective countries since October 2015.

In his 2014 annual report to the UN secretary-general, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association criticized increasing restrictions on receiving foreign funds by NGOs around the world, arguing that states “do not generally object to corporations investing capital from foreign sources in their jurisdictions in the same way they do if civil society organizations receive foreign funding.”

Other Restrictive Measures

The proposed amendments do not address other provisions from the 2008 law that allow for disproportionate government control over the work of nongovernmental organizations. The new amendments would still require civil society groups to submit annual plans to the government in advance and admit government officials to meetings. The law also allows the authorities to remove a group’s management and replace it with state functionaries and to dissolve a group for repeating minor infractions of the law and access a group’s finances at any time without cause or a judicial warrant. These measures make it difficult for associations to operate independently of the Jordanian government, which is the defining purpose of nongovernmental organizations.