The EMHRN’s Project on the Right to Freedom of Association

 
 Thibaut Guillet

EMHRN Freedom of Association Project Coordinator

July 2011

 The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), a regional human rights organisation which gathers more than 80 human rights organisations and individuals based in more than 30 countries in the Euro-Mediterranean region (Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Syria, Turkey, Tunisia and EU Member States), established in response to the Barcelona Declaration adopted in November 1995, has, since its inception in 1998, taken an active interest in the crucial issue of freedom of association.

 Based on the Barcelona Declaration which has launched the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership process, that guarantees “the effective legitimate exercise of such rights and freedoms, including freedom of expression, freedom of association for peaceful purposes”, the EMHRN conducted a series of activities in the early 2000s’: a workshop on the ‘Legal Framework of Associations in the Arab World’, held in Amman on 9-10 May 1999, in cooperation with the Association pour la Défense des Droits et des Libertés au Liban and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation; a workshop leading to the adoption of the Declaration of Principles and Criteria Relating to the Freedom of Association in the Arab Countries (the ‘Amman Declaration’ on May, 10th 1999), in cooperation with the Arab Initiative for Freedom of Association; a seminar on ‘Freedom of Association in the Euro-Mediterranean Region’ organised with three Moroccan groups (Espace associatif du Maroc, Association démocratique des femmes du Maroc and Organisation marocaine des droits de l’Homme) on 5-7 October 2000.

 In 2006, the EMHRN established a specific Working Group dedicated to the issue of Freedom of Association (“the Working Group” or “the WG”). This Working Group, which is composed of representatives of 15 member organisations of the Network based in 12 countries of the Northern and Southern Mediterranean[1], provides a unique opportunity for networking, cooperation and development of partnerships amongst human rights NGOs from both North and South Mediterranean region to discuss the situation of freedom of association in the region. The objectives of the Working Group are threefold:

 -          to promote and protect human rights values and international standards related to freedom of association in the Euro-Med region, particularly in the South and East Mediterranean area;

-          to develop sustained civil society monitoring and expertise on freedom of association conducive to change in legislation where relevant, and to democratic reform through advocacy activities in the North and South Mediterranean region;

-          to support persecuted representatives of human rights associations who are frequently subjected to harassment, travel banning, arbitrary arrest and defamation by their national governments.

 As a result, the Working Group’s main activity consists in monitoring the evolution of freedom of association in the region and reacting when relevant through the production of comments on draft legislation, the launching of campaigns to denounce violations of the right to freedom of association, the organisation of fact finding and solidarity missions. This monitoring work gives rise to an annual report written by independent experts in cooperation with members of the Working Group as well as with the support of the 80 EMHRN member organisations. The tools used to analyse the situation include a study of the existing legislations and legislative changes, case studies (violations or restrictions of the right to freedom of association, good practices implemented by governments, etc.), an examination of judicial decisions and interviews with associative actors, including EMHRN member organisations and women’s rights groups. The aim of these efforts was to analyse the situation in which independent non-governmental organisations (NGOs), especially human rights NGOs, found themselves. Through a participatory, consultative and gender sensitive process (with the active participation of the EMHRN Working Group on Gender equality), the annual reviews benefit from a strong support and ownership from EMHRN members and partners in the field. These reports indeed offer verified and detailed information about best practices and violations to freedom of association in 11 East and South Mediterranean countries and in the EU. All allegations of abuses are documented by EMHRN members in the field, who have commented and approved the findings and recommendations of the reports.

 This annual publication also serves as a basis for advocacy initiatives throughout the region as well as solidarity actions in favour of organisations and their members who are exposed to different types of pressure, harassment, travel bans, arbitrary arrest, defamation, physical attacks and other violations that threaten their associative commitment. The reports are presented in the different countries of the region, allowing EMHRN members and non-members to build capacities to deal with freedom of association. Victims of violations of the right of association – including non-members of the EMHRN – were also invited to take part in advocacy missions in Brussels and Geneva, where they could explain the human rights situation they face in their country to international officials.

 One of the distinctive features of the work of the Freedom of Association Working Group is its reliance on a systematic methodology to measure compliance with international law and standards. The indicators – which include relevant data that can be used to measure the results and impact of an action – used to evaluate the evolution of freedom of association in the region, have evolved since the beginning of the project in 2007 as attempts were made to enhance their accuracy and their relevance. After elaborating a set of benchmarks in its first report published in December 2007, the WG has regularly updated the indicators in an attempt to define a series of precise and relevant indicators allowing for a systematic approach to measure progress and setbacks with respect to freedom of association, both in law and in practice. Indicators have been elaborated with the requirement that they must refer to relevant data measuring the outcomes and effects of the action. It is worth noting that the WG has exerted efforts to ensure the chosen indicators were adapted to the context in which they were used to guarantee accuracy and relevance. In particular, they link quantitative and qualitative measurements in order to avoid misunderstandings. As an example, whereas an increase in the number of judicial complaints would be viewed as a negative development in Europe where access to an efficient court system is a well-established practice, such an increase in the South and East Mediterranean countries could be a positive development if it reflects improvements in the functioning of the judiciary.

 Five criteria were developed to examine how national law and practice deal with international standards related to freedom of association: 1) the groups’ ability to form associations on the basis of a mere declaration; 2) the procedure in place to dissolve an association on grounds complying with Article 22.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; 3) the degree of interferences of the authorities in an association’s activities and decisions; 4) the associations’ access to foreign funds; 5) and a final category labelled “other elements” referring to other laws that negatively impact the enjoyment of freedom of association (e.g. emergency law, terrorism law…).

 For each of the five criteria, a distinction is drawn between the following three types of environments: 1) Green colour denotes an environment where freedom prevails; countries where the situation is satisfactory overall, where internationally recognised standards and principles are respected in full or are breached only in minor ways. 2) Orange colour signals an environment where controls prevail; countries where the situation is not satisfactory overall. 3) Red colour symbolises an environment where repression is the rule; countries where the situation is unsatisfactory and where internationally recognised standards and principles are systematically or frequently and egregiously violated. The objective of this illustrative approach is to describe in a simple and rather basic manner, on the basis of information presented in the reports, the main characteristics of the evolution of freedom of association in the EuroMed region. Such a systematic approach to freedom of association makes it possible not only to allow for comparison between countries in relation to the degree of compliance with international law, but also to identify which reforms to promote and to ease comparisons from year to year and from country to country.

 A close examination of developments that have been occurring in the Euro-Mediterranean region reveals that freedom of association has experienced setbacks in the past few years and there has been very little positive development worth mentioning. Despite January and February 2011 events in Tunisia and Egypt, which give rise to renewed hopes for human rights in general and for freedom of association in particular, the situation related to freedom of association has dramatically deteriorated over the past few years. Since 2007, some countries have amended their laws on NGOs (Jordan) or have announced changes (Egypt[2]), while others have recast their legislation in ways that have a direct impact on NGO activities (Israel[3], Tunisia). Regrettably, all legislative amendments, whether already in force or under preparation – including in Lebanon where the situation is more liberal – appear to be moving towards a more restrictive approach towards NGOs, contrary to international standards on freedom of association. The trend observed in the past three years is that new restrictions have been put in place in the name of public order, security and fight against terrorism. These restrictions have led to arbitrary denials of registration for many organisations, in particular those active in the human rights field (Libya, Syria), including in the promotion of diversity and protection of minorities (Greece, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Turkey). The restrictions have also taken the form of ever-growing interference in NGO activities by the authorities, for example by impeding their right to peaceful assembly (Algeria, Israel, Egypt), intervening in the affairs of their boards (Syria) or dissolving organisations on arbitrary grounds (Palestine). These measures, which contradict both the spirit and the letter of Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, have left human rights activists in a deplorable situation, marked by physical and psychological attacks, smear campaigns and restrictions on the freedom of movement of many activists in a number of countries of the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean.

 Counteracting this negative trend requires a clear political commitment from the East and South Mediterranean countries, combined with international and national pressure. It is hoped that the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world will provide for a new era for associations to operate more freely, including an increased respect of the right to freedom of association.

 

The annual reviews also include thematic chapters encompassing the whole Euro-Mediterranean region, such as: the impact of counter-terrorism policies on freedom of association; the gender difficulties met by women who wish to engage in associations; the right to freedom of association and ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity; the increasing role of GONGOs (governmental associations) in national and international fora; the financing of associations; and the right of non-nationals to form associations.

 Finally, the reports contain recommendations aimed at the 11 East and South Mediterranean countries as well as at the institutions of the European Union in the context of their relations with Governments of the Mediterranean. The conclusions and recommendations of the reviews were presented to the Europeans institutions (European Parliament, Council, European Commission, as well as delegations of the European Union in the countries where the EMHRN conducted WG meetings and missions) in the context of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership and the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in Brussels. The high level meetings between the EU-Mediterranean countries, in the framework of the ENP, also give the EMHRN the opportunity to systematically raise the issue of freedom of association through open letters, statements or missions in order to push for issues related to freedom of association to be placed on the agenda of the relations between the EU and the South Mediterranean countries. In this regard, the recent Communication on the ENP Review “A new response to a changing Neighbourhood”, adopted on 24 May 2011 by High Representative Catherine Ashton, shows that the issue of freedom of association has been put high on the international agenda, as a link was made between freedom of association and the concept of democracy[4].

 The advocacy missions of the WG in Geneva have also proven to be extremely fruitful. Following EMHRN advocacy meetings with UN mandate-holders, representatives from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Middle East/ North Africa Department and key State partners, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders updated the HRD’s 2004 report on “Applying the Declaration on human rights defenders - Meeting the standards of the right to association” as promised to EMHRN representatives[5]. In October 2010, the EMHRN had the opportunity to welcome a United Nations Human Rights Council’s Resolution appointing, for a period of three years, a Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (See http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/RES/15/21). The EMHRN’s Working Group, as well as other organisations like Amnesty International, can certainly be directly credited for this development.

 More information on the EMHRN’s project on freedom of association is available at: http://www.euromedrights.org/en/issues-en/themes-en/3683.html

EMHRN reports on this issue are available in Arabic, English and French at: http://www.euromedrights.org/en/about/working-groups-en/freedom-of-association-en/4561.html

 



[1] The 15 organisations are: the Collectif des Familles de disparu(e)s en Algérie, Algeria; the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Denmark; the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Egypt; the Ligue des droits de l’Homme (LDH), France; Intercenter, Italy; the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, Jordan; the Mouawad Foundation, Lebanon; Solida, Lebanon; the Association Marocaine des Droits Humains (AMDH), Morocco; the Organisation Marocaine pour les Droits de l’Homme (OMDH), Morocco; the World Organisation against Torture (OMCT), Switzerland; Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights (CDF), Syria; the Comité National pour les Libertés en Tunisie (CNLT), Tunisia; the Ligue Tunisienne pour les Droits de l’Homme (LTDH), Tunisia; the Human Rights Association (IHD), Turkey

[2] On 7 July, the Egyptian Minister of Social Solidarity, Dr. Gouda Abdel Khaliq has decided to form a committee to consider tightening the – already restricted – legal controls on foreign funding

[3] On 11 July, the anti-boycott bill was adopted by the Knesset. The anti-boycott law prohibits the public promotion of boycott by Israeli citizens and organisations, and, in some cases, agreement to participate in a boycott