CAIRO: There was very little improvement in respect for the right to association in Euro-Mediterranean countries, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN) said in its third report on freedom of association, released Wednesday.
In fact, respect for the right in the region has deteriorated as national legislations and arbitrary interference by security bodies restrict civil society activities.
The 100-page report, launched at a press conference held at the headquarters of EMHRN member, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), examines respect for the right in 11 Mediterranean countries.
EMHRN member Wadih El-Asmar told the press conference that improvement – where there has been any – is haphazard rather than the result of comprehensive reform. El-Asmar referenced to the case of Lebanon, where the Interior Minister has a “favorable attitude towards civil society groups.
“But all that could change with the next Interior Minister, El-Asmar said.
The report in fact finds that Lebanon “is the only country in the region in which people can exercise their right to freedom of association relatively unhindered by the political authorities.
While the law for Israeli Jews is “perhaps the most liberal because it does not require groups to register, Isreal “uses the fig-leaf of other laws to routinely interdict the operations of Palestinian organisations in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Libya has the most draconian laws, the report says; no organizational activity takes place outside the officially approved framework.
CIHRS executive director Moataz El-Fegeiry said that the state of emergency imposed in countries such as Egypt and Syria, together with the absence of an independent judiciary, severely undermine free exercise of the right to association.
He also pointed to the “combative relationship between independent civil society organisations and Arab governments, noting that the latter regard civil society as a national security issue.
He referred to statements made last year by Abdel Aziz Hegazi, president of the General Federation of NGOs and Foundations (GFNF), who accused human rights organizations of endangering national security.
The authorities heavily control NGO funding in many of the states reviewed. El-Fegeiry explained that domestic funding is not an option for NGOs in Egypt, where it is “criminalized, explaining that in 2005 private businessmen approached to donate to an election monitoring fund refused because of the “risks for their businesses.
Meanwhile, the European Union (EU), El-Fegeiry said, continues to enter into trade partnership agreements with these countries despite restrictions placed on the exercise of rights within them.
El-Fegeiry pointed to Syria, which has an extremely poor record of respect for the right to freedom of association and where an EU partnership agreement is currently under discussion.
“A similar situation happened in Libya which now has improved relations with the international community but where there has been no improvement in human rights, El-Fegeiry said.
Extra-legal control by security bodies is the norm in virtually all the countries surveyed.
“In Egypt, the ‘NGO file’ is assigned to one or more officers in the State Security Investigations (SSI), a branch of the Ministry of the Interior, who phones the activists on a regular basis, requesting updates on an organization’s plans, or recent meetings, the reports says.
“The SSI, which has personnel operating in the Ministry for Social Solidarity, also routinely reviews (and rejects) registration applications by NGOs, and scrutinizes NGO leaders, activities and funding.
In Tunisia every truly independent human rights organization which has applied for funding in the past decade has met rejection. Authorities relentlessly harass human rights activists with constant police surveillance and, in some cases, physical attack.
Tunisia is also among a group of states that has pioneered the establishment of GONGOs – government-organized “non-governmental organizations – to act as a front for the government.
“Egypt has lately got into the GONGO game as well by supporting the creation of groups both in Cairo and in outlying areas that can bid for European and US financial support available only to associations and not to central government bodies, the report says.
El-Fegeiry said that Egypt’s supposedly independent National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) has in practice defended the government in international forums. He attributed this to the fact that NCHR members are picked by the government.
Egypt was marked “red in all five of the categories used to measure the extent of freedom of association, meaning that it failed to meet international standards on the right in all areas.
The Egyptian government announced two years ago that it planned to amend the new law on associations – amendments that have yet to see the light.
EMHRN are highly critical of the failure of the government to consult Egyptian civil society on the draft law. El-Fegeiry meanwhile suggested that the refusal by Minister of Legal Affairs Moufid Shehab and officials from the Ministry of Social Solidarity (which oversees implementation of the Associations Law) to meet the EMHRN delegation while it is in Cairo may be connected to the non-appearance of the amendments.
“They simply have no responses to our questions. They’ve been talking about the amendments for two years and when we ask where they are, they have nothing to say, El-Fegeiry said.
The EMHRN report says that according to information leaked to the media and statements made by GFEF president Hegazy, the amendments would tighten restrictions on NGO activities and expand the role of the GFEF, which would be in direct contact with donors.