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NGO appeal to the EU: Defend civil society in Kyrgyzstan against repressive draft law

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NGO appeal to the EU: Defend civil society in Kyrgyzstan against repressive draft law
Time is ticking - repressive draft law on NGOs is close to final adoption in Kyrgyzstan
NGO appeal to the EU: Defend civil society in Kyrgyzstan against repressive draft law
Time is ticking - repressive draft law on NGOs is close to final adoption in Kyrgyzstan

A coalition of eight international human rights organisations has penned an open letter to the EU, highlighting the unprecedented threats facing civil society in Kyrgyzstan due to the looming adoption of a Russia-inspired draft law on ‘’foreign representatives.’’ The legislation is scheduled for second reading in parliament on 14 February 2024. The signatories urge EU officials, institutions, and member states to take decisive action to defend Kyrgyzstan’s civil society and prevent Kyrgyzstan from treading the same perilous path as Russia, where analogous legislation has been systematically used to discredit, intimidate, and silence NGOs as part of an escalating crackdown.

The signatories to the joint letter include International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Civil Rights Defenders, People in Need, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Front Line Defenders, and International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

Despite national and international expert conclusions as to the draft law’s incompatibility with Kyrgyzstan’s international human rights obligations, as well as repeated criticism from the international community, Kyrgyzstan’s decision-makers appear determined to proceed with the flawed and dangerous initiative. If enforced, the draft law would have potentially disastrous implications for human rights, media freedom, and other non-profit groups in the country.

The signatories to the NGO letter welcome the EU’s active stance regarding the draft law on ‘’foreign representatives’’ in Kyrgyzstan and the concerns it has raised. However, as the draft law now is close to final adoption, they urge the EU to use all available leverage to reinforce its message regarding the draft law and the broader campaign against independent civil society and media actors in the country. They stress the importance of safeguarding the future of civil society in Kyrgyzstan and upholding the credibility of the EU’s values-driven partnership with the country, amidst the deepening ties ties between the EU and Central Asia. They also emphasise that the adoption of the draft law on ‘’foreign representatives’’ is likely to impact the situation of civil society in other Central Asian countries, rendering it a matter of regional significance.

The eight NGOs urge the EU to consider the following steps:

  • Suspending Kyrgyzstan’s trade preferences under the EU’s GSP+ scheme. As a beneficiary of this scheme, Kyrgyzstan is obliged to effectively implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other international human rights treaties in return for preferential access to the EU market. As the draft law on ‘’foreign representatives’’ falls far short of ICCPR standards, such a move would be appropriate and justified. It would also align with the recommendations made in the European Parliament resolution on Kyrgyzstan adopted in July 2023.
  • Postponing the signing and ratification of the EU-Kyrgyzstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (EPCA). This agreement, which would significantly deepen political and economic ties, is expected to be signed soon. After that, it could be provisionally applied even before final ratification. Given the EPCA’s strong emphasis on shared values, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, moving ahead with the signing when a repressive draft NGO law is being pushed through and a widening crackdown on civil society is believed to be imminent would send a misleading signal to Kyrgyzstan’s government.
  • Taking other concrete measures to demonstrate that ‘’business as usual’’ cannot continue if the draft law on ‘’foreign representatives’’ is pushed through and the current campaign against independent civil society and media continues. Such measures could include putting a hold on planned joint events and initiatives with the government, freezing financial allocations committed to supporting government programmes, and suspending the issuance of Schengen visas to decision-makers involved in elaborating and supporting the draft law, as previously called for by local civil society representatives. While EU cooperation with Kyrgyzstan serves various purposes, it is crucial that human rights issues are at the centre of all engagement with the government. The EU must make it clear that pursuing initiatives like the draft law on ‘’foreign representatives’’ contradicts its fundamental values and partnership priorities with Kyrgyzstan, resulting in negative consequences for mutual relations.

The draft law on ‘’foreign representatives’’ was adopted on first reading in parliament in October 2023 and received approval at a crucial committee hearing on 23 January 2024, paving the way for its final adoption by parliament. If parliament adopts the draft law on second and third reading, it will be sent to the president for signature, and if signed by him, it it will enter into force after 10 days.

The most recent version of the draft law, published on the parliamentary website ahead of the second reading, remains fundamentally repressive. NGOs that receive any support from foreign sources and engage in broadly defined political activities would be required to register under the stigmatising label of ‘’foreign representatives.’’ They would be included in a public registry and mandated to use this negative label in all disseminated materials. Groups that fail to register would risk harsh sanctions: the Ministry of Justice could suspend their activities for up to six months without court approval and subsequently petition a court to shut down the organisations.

Under the draft law, authorities would be granted broad powers to oversee NGO activities, access their internal documents, attend any of their events, and conduct intrusive inspections to to check their compliance with their statutes and their use of funds. Additionally, the law would introduce new vaguely worded criminal code provisions, under which NGO representatives could face up to five years in prison if found guilty of causing significant harm to citizens’ rights, society, or the state, or inducing citizens to refuse to perform civic or official duties.

While the initiators of the draft law on ‘’foreign representatives’’ have claimed that it aims to ensure NGO transparency, this is not a legitimate reason under international human rights law for imposing excessive restrictions on them. It is also clear that this is not the draft law’s true objective. NGOs are already subjected to extensive state oversight and regularly report their activities and finances to various state bodies, with information on their sources and use of funding being publicly accessible. Instead, the draft law appears primarily designed as a tool of pressure against groups that scrutinise, criticise, and advocate for improvements in state policies and legislation, to the detriment of the entire civil society sector.

Proponents of the law have carried out organised smear campaigns against human rights defenders, independent journalists, and other civil society representatives, portraying them as threats to national security and accusing them of propagating ‘’non-traditional’’ values and spreading ‘’false’’ information about the situation in the country.

By pursuing the draft law on ‘’foreign representatives’’, the authorities are doing a disservice to citizens. Rather than increasing NGO transparency, it will undermine civil society’s crucial role not only in supporting vulnerable groups but also in promoting public sector transparency and accountability. Watchdogs have already warned of a significant decline in government transparency in Kyrgyzstan, preventing the exposure of wrongdoing and increasing corruption risks. This adversely affects investments, including foreign investments, as well as economic growth and well-being in the country.

The draft law is part of an alarming trend in which Kyrgyzstani authorities have intensified efforts to suppress free speech, restrict access to information, and hinder civic engagement. This includes other restrictive legislative measures targeted at NGOs and media, raids and pressure on independent media outlets, as well as arbitrary arrests and prosecution of outspoken journalists, bloggers, and activists. Recent developments have heightened these concerns. Last week, a court ruled to shut down the independent Kloop media organisation, while the office of the 24.kg remains sealed during an ongoing criminal investigation. Eleven current and former staff members of Temirov Live, known for its exposure of high-level corruption, were arrested on dubious criminal charges in January 2024 and remain in pre-trial detention. In addition, a draft media law, also under consideration in parliament,  would significantly expand government control over the media and make it difficult for independent outlets to operate in the country.

In this context, the draft law on ‘’foreign representatives’’ has caused widespread anxiety among civil society groups in Kyrgyzstan. If the law comes into force, hundreds, if not thousands, of groups that receive foreign funding and engage in legitimate activities aimed at promoting public dialogue and improvements in national legislation, policies, and protection mechanisms will face difficult decisions. They will have to choose whether to register as ‘’foreign representatives’’ and submit to stigmatising and excessive state control, refuse to do so and risk suspension and eventual liquidation, or pre-emptively close down their operations.

President Sadyr Japarov has dismissed criticism of the draft law on ‘’foreign representatives’’ as attempts at ‘’interference in internal affairs.’’ However, the Russian experience serves as a stark reminder of the severe repercussions such legislation can have and underscores the necessity for the EU to address this initiative as a matter of direct, legitimate, and significant international concern.

The full open letter can be downloaded below – in English and Russian translation.

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