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Legislation seeks to limit NGOs in Iraq

Meredith Mackenzie

Jan 31, 2006,

WASHINGTON, DC, United States (UPI) -- Iraq`s transitional government is considering draft legislation that would severely limit the role of foreign non-governmental organizations in the country, a copy of the document obtained by United Press International shows.

Ala` Kazim, Iraq`s state minister for Civil Society, released a copy of the draft legislation to the U.N. Assistance Mission to Iraq on Jan 26. The international community, including the U.N. mission, was given less than a week to respond to the draft before the document was submitted to parliament.

The time period allotted for response, critics say, reflects poorly on the future of civil society in Iraq.

'It`s not just the law, it`s the process. They`ve compressed the consultation period which is critical when dealing with the organization of civil society,' Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, who has seen the document, told United Press International. 'And it`s troubling that the process for developing the draft isn`t as participatory as one would hope.'

Critics say the 11-page draft is ambiguous as it fails to distinguish between social groups and tax-exempt NGOs that serve a public purpose. Its membership clause says all founding members of a new organization must be Iraqi citizens and non-Iraqis may only constitute one-fourth of the total membership. Other restrictions on membership may be violations of international law, critics say, as they discriminated based on gender and religion.

Chapter 2, Section 1, Article 6, of the document says: 'It is impermissible to condition membership on differentiation based on religion, race ... sex or social status.'

Rutzen says this could prohibit an all-woman or all-Christian NGO in Iraq.

'For example, as drafted, Article 6 suggests that membership cannot, in effect, be based on gender,' he said. 'Under international law and good practice, however, there is no reason why women shouldn`t be allowed to establish a support group comprised only of women.'

Under the draft, the election of administrative committees and governing boards of NGOs must be overseen by a judge. The document also provides the minister for Civil Society broad powers that would enable him or her to approve sources of funding for NGOs and have wide-ranging intervention powers in the group`s working.

Chapter 2, Section 3, Article 27 of the document states: 'The organization is prohibited from receiving or taking funds of any kind from inside Iraq or from abroad and may not send any of the previously mentioned to persons or any entity abroad except with the approval of the minister.'

Chapter 2, Section 2, Article 23 says: 'The minister may cancel the realization of any decision issued by the general assembly, the administrative committee of the organization or its president by a decision if same deems that it contravenes this law or the bylaw of the organization.'

If approved by parliament, the minister may dissolve organizations, seize assets and assess fines. Those found guilty of setting up NGOs 'in contravention to the provisions of this law,' the draft says, face a maximum prison sentence of three years.

'The law is extremely restrictive in constraining the development of civil society in Iraq; it vests excessive, unwarranted authority in government officials to control the establishment, operation and termination of non-governmental organizations,' Rutzen said. 'While there are worse examples out there, this is one of the most restrictive laws we`ve seen recently.'

Iraq`s ethnic factions are working to cobble together a government after parliamentary elections late last year. The Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, with close ties to Iran, won 128 seats out of 275 in parliament. Kurdish parties won 53 and Sunnis won 58. This government will then take over from the transitional government that now runs Iraq and which is considering the draft law.

The Bush administration had made democracy in Iraq a cornerstone of its foreign policy success, but the draft as it stand, critics say, may hurt democracy and civil society in the long run.

'It is likely (the law) will undermine the development of civil society and democracy in Iraq,' Rutzen said. 'The government needs to slow down, consult with local civil society and other stakeholders and then proceed with a more reasonable initiative.'

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Who are the Christians of Iraq? 

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