Kazakhstan: Draft NGO law signals worsening civil society climate

ProtestA vaguely worded Kazakhstani draft law on NGOs may seriously restrict the activities and funding of NGOs in this country, in violation of international human rights standards. The draft law, which would introduce amendments to existing laws affecting NGOs, was approved by the lower house of Kazakhstan’s parliament in late September 2015 and in the first reading by the Senate on 8 October 2015.

A joint appeal signed by several dozen Kazakhstani human rights NGOs raises alarm that the draft law on NGOs poses a threat to the country’s independent civil society. Major concerns highlighted in the appeal include:

  • The draft law may result in that a new government-controlled body, a so-called operator, is granted monopoly over the allocation of both state grants and non-state grants to NGOs.
  • The draft law contains provisions according to which grants will be allocated to NGOs for work in certain listed areas of activities. These listed “permissible” activities do not include the protection and promotion of human rights.
  • The draft law proposes the establishment of a new government database on NGOs, to which NGOs will be required to provide information. If NGOs fail to do so or if they provide “incorrect” information, they may be fined, suspended for up to three months, or eventually closed down.

The signatories to the appeal deplore that suggestions made by independent civil society representatives for how to improve the draft provisions have been largely disregarded. They urge the president to ensure that the draft law is reviewed in terms of its compliance with national and international human rights standards, as well as to veto it if it is adopted by the parliament.

International human rights bodies have also criticized the draft law. This week the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the vague wording of the amendments “leaves room for broad interpretation (…), which could result in arbitrary and discriminatory application” and said that the new provisions may have “direct and negative consequences” for the activities and access to funding of NGOs. Following his Kazakhstan mission earlier this year, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association stated that “[s]tate bodies should not be in a position to allocate private, international or foreign funds to public associations” and called on the authorities to limit the proposed new grant mechanism to state funds only.

Aside from the problematic draft NGO law under consideration, other developments have also reinforced concerns about growing pressure on independent civil society voices in Kazakhstan. In a statement issued on 2 October 2015, Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law (KIBHR) – a prominent Kazakhstani human rights NGO and an IPHR partner — highlights a series of recent worrying incidents targeting civil society representatives, media and online platforms. KIBHR considers these to reflect increasing efforts by the Kazakhstani authorities to rein in criticism and expressions of discontent against the backdrop of the deteriorating economic situation in the country.

International Partnership for Human Rights shares the concerns of KIBHR and other Kazakhstani NGOs and call on the authorities of Kazakhstan to:

  • Refrain from moving forward with the draft law introducing amendments to legislation regulating the activities of NGOs in its current format;
  • Ensure that this draft law is reviewed and revised to bring it into compliance with international human rights standards, in accordance with the recommendations made by civil society and international human rights bodies; and
  • Stop cracking down on independent and outspoken civil society representatives, media and online resources, and welcome and encourage open debate on issues of public interest.

See also: Statement on the draft NGO law by Yevgeniy Zhovtis, Chair of the Board and Expert Consultant of KIBHR

Other recent publications on the situation of civil society in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries:

Report by KIBHR, Nota Bene, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and IPHR, “Spotlight: Fundamental Rights in Central Asia”, September 2015

Statement by IPHR, KIBHR, Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, Association for Human Rights in Central Asia and Voice of Freedom Foundation, “A matter of regional concern: Shrinking civil society space in Central Asia”, September 2015