AMMAN // Jordan is considering revisiting a controversial civil societies law that local and international rights groups have criticised for taking too much control over the funding, registration and monitoring activities of non-governmental organisations. Parliament hastily endorsed the law last year, drawing the ire of the country's NGOs, which said they were not even consulted when the law was drafted.
The law, which became effective in December, was seen as a step backwards in the country's hesitant march towards political change because it expanded government control over the registration of NGOs, required the cabinet's consent for foreign donations to NGOs and gave the government the right to dissolve an NGO for minor violations. But under increasing local and international pressure, the government has decided to adopt a softer stance and said it will consider the demands of NGOs and civil society organisations which formed a coalition last year to protest against the law before it became official.
"We want to make it easier for NGOs to carry out their work. We are taking their remarks into consideration and we will study them together. If there are changes that need to be made and they are logical then we do not have a problem with that," said Mohammed Khasawneh, secretary general of the ministry of social development. However, he added: "I don't think that there will be core changes, most of what is going to change has to do with procedural issues rather than core issues."
The government has already submitted proposed amendments to parliament for discussion and review either in its current session or in the extraordinary session, which will be held in July. The amendments would scrap the role of the registrar - the record keeper who is appointed by the cabinet - replacing him with a board to run the affairs of the societies' records, headed by the minister of social development. The board would include representatives of four different ministries, and three representatives from NGOs and would be tasked with setting up at least one committee to debate resolutions between members of the same society or between different societies - an amendment approved by NGO representatives.
With regard to foreign funding, a society would be able to accept donations but would need to notify the concerned minister in writing disclosing the source and the amount of funding and how the funds will be spent, thereby cancelling the prerequisite of cabinet approval. And if the minister does not agree to the funding, the decision could be disputed in the higher court of justice. The General Assembly, unlike before, will not need government approval for its decisions.
Although NGOs and civil society groups called the proposed amendments a step forward, they said they fell short of expectations. "What has been proposed is good, but our main requirements were not considered," said Hani Hourani, director of Al Urdun al Jadid, a think tank and NGO involved in sustainable development and advocacy in Jordan and the Arab world. "The government still has the right to control the activities of the civil societies. When it comes to funding, we still need the minister of social development's approval instead of the cabinet, so the changes are cosmetic."
Taleb al Saqqaf, a lawyer and the head of Human and Environment Observatory, an NGO involved in human rights issues, said "the amendments proposed indicate that the government recognises our role as NGOs and civil society, but we want the government to be committed to its obligations under the international instruments for human rights". While the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which Jordan ratified in 2006, allows the "freedom of association with others", Mr al Saqqaf said setting up a society should not hinge on the government's approval.
"We do not want any interference in the way NGOs manage themselves so that we can be partners with the government to help in implementing public policy and projects that can support the development opportunities. The current law impedes our work because the government can interfere with our decisions and attend our meetings." Although the law became effective three months ago, NGOs said they had not been affected yet because they were given a one-year period to comply with its provisions.
With more than 3,500 organisations registered in Jordan, the government wanted the new legislation to administer the work of NGOs, which were governed by a 43-year-old law. Conservative members of parliament backed the government and pointed to the corruption that plagues many civil society institutions. But speculation was rife that the government was merely looking to extend its control over the Islamic charitable organisation, the financial arm of the Muslim Brotherhood and the wealthiest charity organisation in the country with funds of about US$77 million (Dh283m). The charity run 56 orphanages, 50 schools, two hospitals and 13 health centres.
"We want the government to eliminate restrictions so that we can ease the suffering of the orphans and the poor," said Lafi Qubaa, the secretary general of the organisation. "May God inspire the government so that it will do the right thing." Before the societies law was passed, Human Rights Watch urged the government to withdraw the draft because it violated the international human rights standards. The rights group said the measures target US- and EU-financed domestic human rights NGOs as well as foreign branches of international human rights and humanitarian NGOs and think tanks. Both groups are among the most critical of Jordanian government policies.
So far, the government's proposed amendments are drawing guarded praise. "We felt we were targeted by the law because our reports criticised the violations of human rights, administrative detentions and torture in prisons," said Hani Dahleh, director of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights, which receives funding from the EU and the UN. "The 1966 societies law, despite our reservations, was better than the new one.
"The government wanted to restrict the funding, but it appears that what is being proposed now will make things slightly better." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org