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(Beirut) – Mauritania’s parliament should revise a draft law on associations it is due to confirm during its current session to ensure that it meets international standards on freedom of association, Human Rights Watch said today. The law as drafted would still allow for excessive government control over people’s right to form or operate within associations.

On September 19, 2020, Mauritania’s Council of Ministers sent to parliament the draft Law on Associations, Foundations, and Networks to replace current highly restrictive legislation. The draft law would move away from a stringent licensing regime to a notification system, but serious remaining problems include excessive limitations on areas of activity and the interior minister’s authority to suspend associations temporarily without prior notice.

“While the draft law is a step forward from the current draconian legislation, some revisions are needed to ensure a robust positive environment for Mauritanian civil society,” said Eric Goldstein, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should make it easy for Mauritanians to come together for political or other peaceful purposes.”

The draft law commendably replaces a licensing system with one in which a group automatically would obtain legal status within 60 days after it submits its bylaws and a declaration of incorporation to authorities. The authorities would immediately provide an acknowledgment of receipt of those documents and could reject the notification if it didn’t meet the law’s requirements.

The current law, the 1964 Law on Associations, requires associations to obtain permission to operate legally and grants the Interior Ministry far-reaching power to refuse permission on vague grounds such as “anti-national propaganda” or “exercis[ing] an unwelcome influence on the minds of the people.”

The Interior Ministry has withheld recognition from several associations that campaign on controversial issues, such as the anti-slavery Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA). The government has arrested and harassed members of the group. The organization Hands Off My Nationality, which accuses the government of discriminating against Black individuals in the national civil registration process, failed in its attempts to formally register beginning in 2012.

The draft law further provides that only a judicial authority can permanently suspend an association. The current law allows the government or administrative authorities to dissolve an association for criticizing the authorities.

The draft law makes associations eligible to receive funding, including from foreign donors, and provides a right of recourse in case of adverse administrative decisions.

But the draft law also contains provisions at odds with the right to freedom of association. The draft’s definition of “association” excludes associations of fewer than five people and groups with a non-permanent mandate, provisions that do not correspond to international standards. The parliament should amend the draft to reflect the definition proposed by the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association that “[an] association is any group of individuals or legal entities formed to express, promote, pursue and collectively defend common interests.”

The draft law requires associations to have a “primary area of intervention” clearly defined in their statutes, and refrain from political activities. It also states that “the purpose of its activities must be in the public interest and not be contrary to the principles enshrined in the Constitution, the constants and values of the Republic, public order, good morals and the provisions of the laws and regulations in force.” These vague concepts could be used to justify denying accreditation to associations working on sensitive human rights issues such as for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

A vague clause states that an association is “null and void” if it is “founded for an illicit cause, is contrary to the law, undermines the existence of the state, the integrity of the national territory, the pluralistic nature of Mauritanian democracy […].” These terms further expose associations to arbitrary government decisions.

The interior minister can, under the draft law, suspend an association for up to 60 days for poorly defined reasons such as “engagement in activities that could threaten public order and morals.” Current legislation allows the interior minister to permanently revoke, without first seeking court approval, the legal status of organizations that “incite demonstrations that compromise public security,” engage in “anti-national propaganda,” or “exercise an unwelcome influence on the minds of the people.”

Under current legislation, courts can impose prison sentences of between one and three years to anyone who continues to run an unauthorized organization, and from six months to one year for anyone who “participates in the functioning” of an unauthorized organization. While the draft law does not specify prison terms, it states that founders, representatives, or leaders of associations can be “exposed to judicial proceedings” if they fail to declare their group or if they “illegally re-establish a group.”

Foreign associations, defined as groups constituted under foreign laws and headquartered abroad, need to enter into a “framework agreement” with Mauritanian authorities before they can carry out activities in the country. This measure amounts to a generalized authorization regime, contrary to the spirit of a notification system, and should be repealed, Human Rights Watch said.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Mauritania ratified in 2004, guarantees the right to peaceful association. Article 22 states, “No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the 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.”

As with all rights in international law that may be limited, the restrictions specified in article 22 (2) of the ICCPR should be interpreted and applied narrowly and without discrimination on grounds such as nationality, religion, or political opinion.

Article 10 of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights further states that “every individual shall have the right to free association provided that he abides by the law” and “no one may be compelled to join an association.”

An independent expert, Francois Patuel, founder of FP Research Consultants, provided legal analysis.

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