Human rights groups warn of dangerous legislative offensive against NGOs in Ukraine
A coalition of major Ukrainian human rights organizations has added its voice to demands that Ukraine’s government put an end to the mounting attack on non-governmental organizations. The Human Rights Agenda Coalition see two draft bills currently before parliament as part of a crackdown on civic organizations and as discriminatory, since the laws propose far more onerous accountability from NGOs, than from business or the public sector.
As reported here, President Petro Poroshenko announced on July 8 a move to cancel contentious legislation which he had himself signed into law and which effectively treated anti-corruption activists and journalists investigating corruption as civil servants, requiring them to fill out electronic e-declarations.
At the same time, however, two new bills, drawn up by the President’s Administration were tabled. Instead of the electronic declarations for anti-corruption activists and journalists, these bills proposed additional tax reporting for NGOs, individual entrepreneurs and those providing them with services.
There had once again been no consultation with civic organizations before draft laws No. 6674 and No. 6675 were tabled, and criticism has been widespread.
Human Rights Agenda, for example, points out that the amount of reporting demanded from NGOs would significantly exceed those demanded from businesses or from those receiving public funding.
The human rights organizations who have expressed such concerns include the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group and the Crimea Human Rights Group. They note that given a background of calls for a reduction in excessive state regulation, such moves to increase regulation have not arisen by chance. They see the proposed penalty of loss of non-profit-making status as punitive and a weapon for bringing pressure to bear selectively on NGOs that are not loyal to the Government.
They call the President’s bills “disproportionate interference in the work of NGOs and say that the moves would make Ukraine similar to the repressive regimes seen in Russia; Kazakhstan; Azerbaijan and other countries. While ostensibly about ensuring transparency and accountability, such regulations in practice resulted in the virtual elimination of those NGOs that were not controlled by the government and to a total crackdown on civil society.
The Council of Europe and OSCE have produced Guidelines on Freedom of Association which propose only that the state encourages NGOs to be accountable and transparent, not that it demands this. It is legitimate to impose special reporting demands only if particular privileges are provided, and even then, “it is within the discretion of the association to decide whether to comply with such reporting requirements or forgo them and forsake any related special benefits, where applicable“.
Human Rights Agenda call on President Poroshenko to make good his promise to revoke the demand regarding e-declarations and on parliament to reject both of the new bills.
Earlier the Reanimation Package of Reforms also criticized the bills, and the lack of publicity and engagement from NGOs in drawing them up which had resulted in significant shortcomings. They too view the laws as discriminatory since they only target NGOs, although the principles behind the laws apply equally to all non-profit-making entities, including political parties.
The new reporting would often duplicate information already provided to the relevant state agencies, while their omission would still lead to penalties.
RPR agrees that the discretionary power to strip an NGO of its non-profit-making status if it did not provide annual financial reports with all the information demanded would be likely to lead to abuse by the controlling authorities.
Vitaliy Shabunin, Head of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre, writing in Ukrainska Pravda, warned that “the proposed norms introduce an additional form of tax reporting for NGOs and give fiscal authorities total manual control over the activities of non-profit-making organizations”.
“In the hands of an unreformed fiscal service, such an instrument can become an effective way of blocking the work of organizations that are critical of the government”.
With Shabunin and his Anti-Corruption Action Centre having faced precisely such selective targeting over the last year , concern about the scope for abuse programmed into these new legislative initiatives seens more than legitimate.