Executive Summary

Jordan has long sought to present itself as a country of political reform. The king and his diplomatic representatives make polished presentations when visiting Western capitals about how they are moving forward with legislative and policy changes to bring about increased freedoms and the rule of law. At his keynote speech for the World Economic Forum held at the Dead Sea in May 2007, King Abdullah emphasized the priority he places on developing and promoting civil society in the country. The stark realities in Jordan contrast with this rosy picture presented to the world.

In the past few years, rather than broadening the space for civil society participation in the country’s public affairs, the Jordanian government has made it increasingly difficult for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate—or even exist—with a modicum of independence. In 2007, the cabinet proposed a new Law on Charitable Societies and Social Institutions, a draft of which imposes restrictions on associations stricter than those of the current 30-year-old law. This proposed legislation, which ignored a counter-draft from civil society organizations, is a significant setback to the rights of Jordanians to associate freely: the draft law grants the government new powers and mechanisms to deny NGOs licenses to operate, inspect, approve funding, install government-imposed management, and dissolve NGOs for a wide variety of reasons. In effect, the government is to be the sole arbiter of which NGOs it allows to exist and what it allows them to do, depriving NGOs of any meaningful independence. It has exercised its power in an arbitrary manner, restricting NGOs that take on political or controversial social issues. The government has also clamped down on the freedom of civil society to peacefully assemble and to associate.

Jordan likes to pride itself on a vibrant civil society, but in reality, NGOs who actually dare to be critical of the government struggle to ward off continual pressure and interference from the authorities. As a result, many do not criticize the government, and those that do face closure and, at worse, prosecution and possible prison time for their employees. Few NGOs were willing to go on the record regarding government interference and harassment. One executive of a well-established Jordanian NGO told Human Rights Watch: “NGOs are afraid to talk to Human Rights Watch because there have been negative repercussions on them in the past.”

At the same time, the Ministry of Interior has clamped down on the right of Jordanians to freely assemble, whether in a demonstration or in public meetings in smaller groups. Following a change in the Law on Public Gatherings in 2001, affirmed by parliament in 2004, a governor must now approve demonstrations or public meetings in advance instead of being only notified. In most cases of requests for approval that Human Rights Watch has learned about, governors have denied permission, without giving a reason. At times, the requests are for demonstrations protesting Jordan’s foreign policy or the government’s social and economic measures, or expressing solidarity with fellow Muslims over an issue of common concern. Those few demonstrations allowed by governors have almost invariably been peaceful. Nevertheless, governors give exceedingly few permits to any group perceived, however broadly, as an opposition group.

As the largest opposition political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) has been at the center of the government’s restrictions on the basic rights of assembly and association of individuals or groups affiliated with or sympathetic to it.

Since 2006, Jordan’s political climate has taken on a decidedly sharper edge, with the government challenging the opposition’s loyalty to the Hashemite kingdom, and the Islamist, nationalist and leftist opposition parties and groupings accusing the government of backtracking on promised reforms.

As evidence for its charge that the government has backtracked on reform, the opposition cites a newly enacted Law on Political Parties, which is likely to shut down many of the smaller parties due to the high numbers of five hundred required founding members, now also required to hail from five different governorates. It also cites the government’s failure to enact a new electoral law with fairer distribution of parliamentary seats. Under the current system, electoral districts with a only several thousand eligible voters in rural districts return one member of parliament, while populated urban districts with tens of thousands of eligible voters also return only one member. Urban constituencies tend to be more sympathetic toward the opposition, and rural districts tend to favor the current regime.

Relations between the government and the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the main Islamist opposition party, reached a low point when the IAF pulled out of municipal elections underway on July 31 alleging massive fraud—later documented by independent human rights centers. The government did not allow independent monitoring of the municipal elections, and, despite their irregularities, refused to allow NGOs to monitor polling stations during the national parliamentary elections held on November 20, 2007. Jordanian NGOs had created a coalition, supported by the US National Democratic Institute, to monitor those elections, but the government insisted that the governmental National Center for Human Rights act as the sole umbrella organization allowed to monitor the elections and that it not be allowed inside polling stations.

This report documents legal restrictions on the rights to freedom of assembly and association and violations of these rights by the Jordanian government. It highlights the extent to which the government’s new and proposed laws on non-profit companies (differently incorporated NGOs) and NGOs further undermine these rights and examines recent instances where the government has used its laws to severely curtail the freedom of Jordanians to organize independent organizations or to protest publicly. The events discussed in this report largely occurred in the period from 2005 until the present. This report is based on Human Rights Watch interviews conducted in Jordan in June, August and October 2007, as well as media accounts. Several foreign and domestic NGO representatives working in human rights and social services complained of government interference but preferred not to have their names or specific circumstances mentioned publicly. For the Islamic Center Society, Human Rights Watch spoke to both the government and the Muslim Brotherhood representative. For the General Union of Voluntary Societies (GUVS), we spoke with the GUVS representative and consulted official correspondence.

This report concludes that Jordanian laws and practice fall significantly short of its obligations under international human rights law guaranteeing the freedom of assembly and association. The Jordanian government has abused the current laws on assembly and association to sharply curtail the rights of those perceived to be its political opponents or critics.

Two large NGOs, the General Union of Voluntary Societies, an umbrella group, and the Islamic Center Society are responsible for delivering services and carrying out charitable activity to a large number of Jordanians. The government appears to have cracked down on these two organizations on the excuse of individual financial impropriety because they posed a political challenge when they spoke against government policies. The other target of government policy appear to be human rights NGOs, in particular those receiving foreign funding. The government has roundly dismissed findings of international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and in 2006 and 2007 domestic groups increasingly became the target of government censure, too, including the National Center for Human Rights, whose independent and impartial public reporting on the 2006 counterterrorism law and its report on fraud in the 2007 municipal elections drew government ire.

While the Jordanian government prides itself on its election in 2006 to the United Nations Human Rights Council and to be one of the council’s vice presidents, it has failed to live up to its pledge as a council member to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” as the UN General Assembly resolution creating the Human Rights Council defined the responsibilities of Council members.

The actions the Jordanian government should take to make real its purported commitment to reform are straightforward. It should amend its legislation restricting the right to freedom of assembly and of association; it should require only notice, not advance permission, for public gatherings and should impose only those restrictions strictly necessary to protect those gathered and the rights of others; it should automatically register NGOs or non-profit companies who give notice of their formation without government vetting, and should have no role in monitoring or interfering in their work, including by deciding the appropriateness of NGO funding sources on a case-by-case basis, or by removing an NGO’s management board. Dissolving an NGO should require a judicial order and include the right to appeal.

Jordan’s major donors, the United States and the European Union, who together provided Jordan with around US$600 million in total assistance in 2006, nearly ten percent of Jordan’s projected 2007 budget of $6.4 billion, have played a significant role in bolstering the Jordanian economy and enabling the government to operate. The US has also worked closely with the Jordanian government to develop its security and counterterrorism capacity. Both the US and the EU have claimed that an important part of their objectives in the Middle East, and in Jordan in particular, is to encourage the development of civil society, including by pressing for changes in the association law, and strengthening the rule of law. Sadly, they appear to have achieved little in practice to prevent Jordan from slipping backward on the rights to assembly and association. Neither the US nor the EU has spoken publicly about Jordanian shortcomings or raised the prospect of withholding specific funding to promote respect for human rights.

To give credibility to their stated commitments to the promotion of reform and civil society in Jordan, both the US and the EU need to be clear in their public positions against the government’s regressive laws and abusive practices. At a minimum, they should make specified funding, such as direct funding to the government’s coffers, conditional on changes to existing legislation restricting freedom of assembly and association.