The right of people to get together and organise themselves in pursuit of shared interests is one of the building blocks for a free and open society. It is also something that Arab regimes fear, since active citizenship undermines their authority.
Consequently, many of them have introduced laws creating arbitrary powers to restrict, control and otherwise manipulate the activities of civil society organisations.
First, they require clubs, societies and other non-government organisations to register with the authorities while making it difficult, and in some cases almost impossible, for them to do so.
Organisations that succeed in registering then face a host of bureaucratic and mostly pointless rules for how they should conduct their affairs. These basically create an obstacle course to trip up the unwary and often also impose restrictions on fundraising.
Finally, the law usually gives the authorities power to close down or take control of an organisation if they disapprove of what it is doing.
One of the worst offenders in this respect is Bahrain. Although the kingdom's official media never tire of telling us about the "atmosphere of freedom and openness" created under the "wise leadership" of His Majesty King Hamad, Bahrain's associations law is probably the most restrictive among the Arab countries.
A recent report from Human Rights Watch looks in detail at the workings of this law, along with others regulating political groups and trade unions.
Bahrain's current law on associations dates back to 1989. Here are some of its key points:
Any group carrying out social, educational, cultural, charitable, sporting or artistic activity has to be registered with the authorities.
The penalty for establishing or operating an unlicensed society is 500 Dinars ($1,320) and/or six months' imprisonment.
The penalty for publishing or broadcasting anything on behalf of an unlicensed organisation is 1,000 Dinars and/or one year in prison.
It is also a crime under the penal code to become a member of an unlicensed organisation inside or outside(!) Bahrain.
Once granted, licences can be revoked at any time.
The process of applying for registration is in itself quite a powerful deterrent. Article 5 of the 1989 law says the following information must be provided:
1. The name of the association, its purpose, its field of activities and means to achieve these aims; the geographic area of its activities; its main location which shall be in the state of Bahrain. No association shall take a name that could be confused with the name of any other association.
2. The names of the founding members, their titles, their date of birth, their profession, their nationality, and their addresses [at least 10 founders are required];
3. The resources of the society and means of using these resources;
4. The different bodies that represent the association and the powers of these bodies; means of selecting them, conditions for dismissing members, quorum needed for the convening of the general assembly and the board of directors, other bodies representing the association and the quorum needed for the legitimacy of their decisions.
5. Conditions of membership, type of membership, the rights of members specially with regard to attending the general assembly meeting and voting on decisions to be taken;
6. Internal auditing procedures;
7. Rules for amending the basic law of the association, establishing branches and merging the association with other associations;
8. Conditions of voluntarily dissolving of the society, and the destination of assets after dissolving the association.
Some of these requirements, such as the name and purpose of the association, may not seem unreasonable in themselves but the amount of detail required gives plenty of scope for officials to quibble – assuming they don't reject the application out of hand.
The law fails to recognise that clubs and associations often start off in a small and fairly informal way among groups of like-minded friends. Instead, it expects them to be fully-fledged institutions with their own bureaucracies, internal auditors, and so on, even before they know whether they will be allowed to operate.
The law also makes clear that associations are not at liberty to devise their own rules; they must conform with model rules issued by the government.
Once an application is submitted, the authorities can reject it for almost any reason they choose – for example, on the grounds that "society does not need" the proposed organisation's services (Article 11).
If the authorities can't be bothered with rejecting it they can simply ignore the application, since it is automatically considered to have been rejected if they fail to respond within 60 days. (This is the opposite of the situation in some Arab countries – Lebanon, for example – where an application is deemed to be accepted in the absence of a response.)
One example of how this operates in practice came towards the end of 2009 when a group of journalists applied to register the Bahrain al-Nazaha ("Integrity") Society. The society's stated aims were to monitor elections and "promote the culture of integrity" by combating corruption.
The Ministry of Social Development failed to respond within the 60-day time limit, in effect rejecting the application. The group appealed to the ministry which again failed to respond within 60 days.
The group then took their case to the High Civil Court – which finally elicited a response from the Ministry of Social Development. It claimed that the society's aims fell outside the ministry's remit and the application should have been made to the Information Ministry instead.
The Social Development ministry could easily have made this clear right at the beginning, but the whole point is not to be helpful, especially when the authorities don't like the sound of the applicants' organisation.
In the meantime, according Hussain Mansour of al-Nazaha, the Social Development ministry agreed to register a human rights organisation whose founders where known to be government supporters.
2. MONITORING AND SUPERVISION
Under the current law:
Associations must notify the authorities of general assembly meetings 15 days in advance, and the authorities can attend them (Article 33).
Associations must notify the authorities within 15 days of any decisions taken by their board (Article 46). The authorities can also request the holding of a board meeting (Article 45) and have the power to annul elections to the board (Article 47).
The authorities can dissolve or suspend an association if it "is unable to achieve the aims its was established to achieve", or violates "the public order or norms". (Article 50).
The authorites can merge one or more associations if their aims are similar and can also amend an association's purposes "according to the needs of society" (Article 24).
Associations are not allowed to receive money from a foreigner or a foreign body (Article 20).
Associations are not allowed to send money to a foreign person or foreign association without a prior permission ("except for amounts to buy books, and scientific and technical books and leaflets").
Public fundraising within Bahrain requires a licence from the authorities and the minister concerned may set "special conditions for each case when necessary" (Article 21).
In 2006 a ministerial decree imposed a series of further obstacles to fundraising:
Fundraising licenses are valid for two months only.
If the ministry does not respond favourably within 30 days, the request for a fundraising licence is considered to have been refused.
Fundraising must be "linked to an activity that will be held at a specified time and date or for a special occasion or to cope with urgent circumstances".
Associations must inform the ministry how they will collect the money, the name and number of the bank account, and how they will spend the funds.
Associations must record the name of every donor (anonymous donations are not allowed).
The ministry may confiscate funds and redistribute them if it considers the terms of the fundraising licence have been breached.
THE NEW DRAFT LAW
There has been talk of reforming the 1989 law since at least 2007. A new draft law was approved by the cabinet last August, though it is still awaiting approval from the National Assembly.
Apparently untouched by Bahrain's "atmosphere of freedom and openness", the draft has not been published, nor have relevant local organisations been consulted about its content. Human Rights Watch also asked to see the draft law, sending 10 letters and emails between May and October last year – all to no avail. Eventually it received a leaked copy.
According to Human Rights Watch, several provisions in the draft are "even more draconian than the current 1989 law". They
The number of founding members for an association is increased from 10 to 15;
Associations seeking to register must provide a "two-year operational budget";
Associations seeking to register must provide evidence that they have a physical office;
Attempts to revive organisations that have been dissolved or merged are prohibited.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 18 July 2013