GENEVA (6 March 2019) – UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday expressed concern about the possible approval by the Guatemalan Congress of a bill amending the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations for Development, that would greatly limit the work of human rights defenders and civil society in general.
The draft bill, which is scheduled to undergo a third reading today, introduces requirements and administrative controls for national and international NGOs that in practice could be applied in a discretionary or arbitrary manner to limit the exercise of the civil society organizations.
“I regret that Congress has continued with the process of approving this amendment despite its inconsistencies with international human rights standards, and despite the technical advice provided by my Office, and serious concerns expressed by UN independent experts and civil society,” the UN Human Rights Chief said.
The draft bill narrows the definition of NGOs, limiting their scope in a way that may constrain the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression.
To obtain authorizations, NGOs would need to go through a complex registration process with several different state institutions, and the criteria for granting, rejecting or revoking those authorizations are not specified in the bill.
In addition to a range of restrictions on foreign funding, if the bill is passed, all NGOs registered and operating in Guatemala would be required to update their information and comply with all the requirements of this law within a maximum six months. After this period, if they do not comply, they will be automatically de-registered and have to stop operating.
According to the draft, NGOs would not be allowed to carry out activities that may “alter the public order” and, if they do, they could be closed down and their directors may even face prosecution, opening the door to criminalization of human rights defenders. There is no definition of “public order” in the draft bill.
“The restrictive effect of these reforms contravenes the State’s obligation to protect and guarantee democratic space for civil society, an essential pillar for the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” Bachelet said.
“I remind Guatemala’s authorities and institutions of the need to create and maintain a safe and conducive environment for NGOs to freely express their opinions and conduct their work for the benefit of society at large,” UN High Commissioner said.
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