Civil society welcomes ruling on NGO laws

Activists have welcomed a recent ruling by the Kazakh Constitutional Council that a set of draft laws regulating the activities of NGOs is unconstitutional. Even so, they still remain concerned by other laws that could impede the development of civil society in Central Asia's largest state.

"The fact that the Constitutional Council acted correctly in this decision is a positive sign," explained Antonio Stango, the country director of Freedom House, a leading advocate of the world's young democracies, speaking on Wednesday from the Kazakh commercial capital, Almaty.

The 23 August Constitutional Council decision relates to two proposed laws. Both relate to the activities of branches and representative offices of international and foreign non-profit organisations in Kazakhstan. They are also closely associated with the introduction of amendments and additions to certain other legislative acts of Kazakhstan on matters related to non-profit organisations. The laws had proved to be a source of serious concern for local and international NGOs alike.

The proposed legislation had been passed by parliament in July and then sent to the president either to be signed into law, vetoed, or, as in this case, sent to the Constitutional Council for review.

Had the law been passed and gone into effect, it would have been necessay to notify the authorities of every proposed event, including round-table discussions or press conferences, at least 10 days in advance of them being held. Additionally, all budgets would have required the tacit approval, not only of the tax authorities but also of both city and provincial officials as well.

In May, a group of organisations including Freedom House, issued a joint letter calling upon the chairman of Kazakhstan's parliament to dismiss the draft laws. The group argued that the legislation threatened democracy in Kazakhstan.

Though the Constitutional Council had been charged with determining the constitutionality of the proposed legislation, Antonio Stango stated that such decisions are often politically based.

"To my eyes, these laws were so evidently unconstitutional it was strange that the parliament could approve them. The approval of the parliament was in itself unconstitutional," the Freedom House official claimed. "It would have been really very difficult to work under that legislation."

While pleased with the council's ruling, Eugeniy Zhovtis, director of Kazakhstan's International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, maintained that the reasoning behind the decision had been more procedural in nature than substantive.

"I am rather concerned about the arguments the Constitutional Council used....I'm satisfied that these laws were rejected but I want the political idea of regulating the activities of NGOs, the force behind these laws, to also be rejected - not only the text," Zhovtis said, noting recent changes which had been made to another law relating to national security.

"These amendments to the law on national security have imposed restrictions on basic human rights, including freedom of conscience, peaceful assembly and freedom of association...I think it gives priority to national security over human rights," he said, describing the amendments as 'clearly undemocratic'.

Such laws, which depend on the government for their interpretation, might prove to be particularly restrictive to both civil society and the media, both Zhovtis and Stango explained.

"It depends on the selective approach our authorities usually use and on political will. If there is no political will, they will not use it. They (the government) always maintain a very good sense of leverage as to whether to use the law or not to," Zhovtis added.

The new national security legislation which was signed into law in July is particularly restrictive and provides government with a number of controls over civil society. It means that any group, NGO or organisation that has done something which might be interpreted as an infringement of the country's national security can be closed, Stango explained.

"Depending on its interpretation, this legislation can be quite restrictive on civil society," he warned.

Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Tuesday praised the decision.

"The OSCE is satisfied with the Kazakh Constitutional Council's decision that the laws regulating the activities of NGOs do not correspond to Kazakhstan's constitution," Ivar Vikki, the head of the OSCE centre in Almaty, said while attending a conference entitled "Constitution: an individual, society and the state" in Astana.

In his view, the Council's conclusion "is an important and undoubtedly, positive step by Kazakhstan towards its desire to prove that it is a democratic state," the Interfax-Kazakhstan news agency reported Vikki as saying.