Freedom of Association is a fundamental freedom protected by international law. Article 22 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects the right for individuals to join together to pursue a common purpose. This right extends to informal activities, such groups of people joining together to discuss an issue of common concern about their local neighborhood or clean up their local park, and it also extends to formal legal entities, including civil society organizations. Since the adoption of the ICCPR, a number of regional bodies have also adopted treaties that protect the freedom of association. Article 24 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, as well as Articles 10 and 11 of African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights contain nearly identical language – as do international treaties in effect in Europe and the Americas.
Freedom of Association
The right to freedom of association is also important to the full enjoyment of other civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights. People should be able to exercise these rights both individually and with others, including through their civil society organizations. The relationship between freedom of association and the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly is particularly important because restrictions on these rights may impact the activities of CSOs, including the ability to speak freely, raise awareness, engage in advocacy and participate in peaceful assemblies. For example, Algeria passed a new Law on Information in January 2012. Among other restrictions, the Law requires all publications to be subject to prior approval by a media regulatory authority. Moreover, the scope of the Law is broad, embracing the “publication or dissemination of facts, news messages, opinions, or ideas…” Algerian CSOs have also reported that the Law also “prohibits unregistered groups from disseminating or publishing information.
A legal framework that respects and guarantees the freedom of association can provide the foundation for a strong civil society sector, which contributes to a healthy democratic society. A strong sector provides an outlet for citizens to participate in policy making, to advocate for their interests, and to participate in the political and social development of their communities or countries. It can also help make the work of public authorities more transparent and closer to their constituencies; and help contribute to the quality of adopted public policy and its smooth implementation. Without adequate protections for freedom of association, CSOs may have to limit their objectives or activities to avoid undertaking ones that are unpopular with the government or to avoid criticizing the government. For example, it may be difficult for a CSO to take on the role of monitoring government actions and spending in a country where freedom of association is not adequately protected because the CSO may fear reprisal, such as dissolution of the CSO.
Historically, in most Middle East / North Africa (MENA) countries, freedom of association has not been adequately protected. The Arab uprising demonstrated the power and impact of people exercising the rights to peaceful assembly, expression, and association. The uprisings also revealed powerful linkages between frustration over the lack of development and economic opportunities, resentment over the lack of accountability and transparency within the government, and a demand for fundamental rights.
Several governments recently reformed their previously restrictive CSO laws, adopted or amended their Constitutions, and/or pledged more cooperation and engagement with civil society. Some of these reforms were likely a result of the protests and changes sweeping the regions, but some predate the “Arab Spring.” The reforms include:
Morocco: Before the “Arab spring,” Morocco’s law was among the better laws in the region. Moroccan CSOs have requested additional improvements to the law, which the government has said that it plans to amend. In 2011, Morocco also adopted a new Constitution, which contains several provisions that expand the role of CSOs in the legislative process and provide for greater cooperation between civil society and the government. Morocco is drafting a series of organic laws to implement these new Constitutional provisions, and has launched a National Dialogue process.
Yemen: Yemen’s Law on Associations and Foundations (Law 1 of 2001) permits Yemeni CSOs to be easily established and to operate with a minimum of government interference. That said, Yemeni CSOs have sought to reform some of the more restrictive provisions of the law, and have criticized the government’s restrictive implementation practices, for a number of years. The Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs recently proposed amending the NGO law, and drafting of amendments is currently underway. While many Yemeni NGOs welcome these moves as opportunities to address implementation problems, several NGOs have warned that the amendment process may lead to new restrictions. Yemen is also undertaking National Dialogue process and has agreed to allow civil society to participate in this process.
Palestine: CSOs in Palestine consider their 2000 Law one of the better laws in the region. It limits government interference in comparison with most other Arab countries. Nonetheless, it leaves some space for government authorities to interfere with CSOs. CSOs have also criticized restrictive implementation practices and the issuance of presidential decrees and regulations that violate the Law and hinder the development of the civil society.
Lebanon: Lebanon has established one of the most enabling legal and regulatory environments for civil society in the entire Arab world. The Lebanese NGO law is the 1909 Ottoman Law on Associations, which has remained in force for more than 100 years. For a number of years the Law on Associations was misapplied by Lebanese authorities, who often took months and, in some extreme cases, years to deliver a receipt of notification. Without this receipt, associations could not take full advantage of the rights and privileges afforded to registered legal entities. In 2006, the Minister of Social Affairs put an end to a number of negative implementation practices — most importantly, by requiring that receipts be issued within 30 days of the date of notification.
The “Arab Spring’s” powerful demonstration of the potential impact of civil society activists and other citizens exercising their rights also triggered aggressive responses from some governments in the region, particularly in Egypt:
Egypt: Egypt has a highly restrictive law, which provides broad discretion to the government to deny registration or dissolve an association. Efforts to amend Egyptian laws governing freedom of association and freedom of assembly have been ongoing since at least 2010. A number of proposals have been put forward by the Egyptian government and various coalitions of civil society organizations. Following ratification of the new constitution of Egypt on 26 December 2012, the Shura Council (Egypt’s upper house of parliament) received for the first time the right to initiate the legislation “in case of the dissolution of the House of Representatives” or lower house of parliament (Article 131). Taking advantage of this new authority, the Shura Council is considering draft laws on assembly and association submitted by government ministries or political parties. These draft laws have been heavily criticized by international and domestic observers because they would increase restrictions on civil society.
Some countries, such as Jordan, have not cracked down on civil society, but also have not made sufficient amendments to their legal frameworks:
Jordan: In 2008, the Law on Societies (Law 51 of 2008) was enacted. Although the new law was an improvement, it was met with criticism for not going far enough to remove restrictions on civic space.