HRW: association bill threatens civil society groups

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Human Rights Watch warns that Myanmar’s bill on associations does not meet international human rights standards and should be revised, warning that it allows “excessive government control” over civil society groups.

Myanmar’s organization formation bill, released on July 27, 2013, threatens civil society groups, says HRW.

The draft associations law contains a number of provisions contrary to the right to freedom of association as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties, said Human Rights Watch.

The bill would require non-governmental organizations to obtain official registration in order to operate; entrust a loosely defined regulatory authority to a body under effective military control; and subject groups to final decisions. Human rights groups fear that members of unregistered groups may also face criminal penalties.

“This bill would give the Burmese government broad authority to refuse to let a group operate and send the leaders and members of the association to jail if the group operates without authorization,” warned Phil Robertson, HRW deputy director for Asia.

“The government appears to want to keep its grip on civil society, effectively muzzling watch groups during this critical period of reform. “

The bill would require all NGOs to register before operating, HRW said, essentially making the right to freedom of association conditional on obtaining government approval. Chapter VIII states that organizations and members without a “training certificate” cannot “not form or function as an organization”. Those who fail to comply face criminal penalties, including up to three years in prison and fines.

The bill in Chapter III creates a “central committee” which appears to have unlimited power to reject NGO registrations and terminate existing groups. No provision guarantees the independence or competence of the committee. The committee is to be chaired by the Minister of the Interior who, as stipulated in the Burmese Constitution of 2008, must be a senior serving officer. There is no provision for appealing a suspension or termination of registration status.

The number of national organizations and community groups in Burma increased dramatically following the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Human Rights Watch said these groups have played a critical role in advancing women’s rights, environmental protection, poverty reduction, economic development, health, education and human rights.

Many of these civil society organizations have expressed strong opposition to the bill, rejecting many of its provisions and denouncing the lack of consultation with civil society during its formulation.

In a statement on August 21, the United Nations Special Envoy for Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said that the adoption of the law in its current form “would be a serious setback for the development of a strong civil society and dynamic ”in Burma and that“ the government must change its mind about registration procedures if it is to create an environment in which civil society can thrive.

“Burma is slowly emerging from decades of harsh authoritarian rule where many groups have been either controlled by the government or forced into exile,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. “The Associations Bill threatens recent progress made by Burmese civil society groups and will undermine efforts to hold the government to account in the reform process. “


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