Will international donors legitimize Uzbekistan’s tightening grip on civil society?
By Umida Niyazova and Lynn Schweisfurth
Uzbekistan’s new regulations for NGOs impose government control and interference in the implementation of projects funded by foreign organizations or individuals. This poses difficult questions for international donors including the European Union, USAID, United Nations agencies, and others who make grants available to civil society organizations.
On June 16, 2022, with hardly any audible public announcement and only a passing mention in the media, the Uzbek government passed a decree regulating the procedures for implementing NGO projects that receive foreign funding. From now on, Uzbek NGOs that receive any foreign funding are obliged to involve employees of state agencies, referred to in the decree as “national partners,” recommended to them by the Ministry of Justice.
The national partner, i.e. an employee of a specialized governmental agency, will be tasked with developing a “roadmap” for the implementation of the project for which the NGO has received funding and will coordinate the work of partner organizations. The national partner also has a number of other explicit duties. These include ensuring the “effective implementation” of the project by solving problems, making suggestions and additions to the project, as well as developing recommendations. The national partner will also be responsible for signing memoranda of “mutual cooperation” with government agencies as well as evaluating project activities and analyzing project results.
In other words, instead of freeing up space for independent civil society activity, which NGOs and international diplomats have long been advocating for, the Uzbek government has effectively decided to tighten the reins on non-governmental activity.
This bizarre imposition of state involvement in the work of NGOs is unthinkable for a democratic state. It is presented by the government as “practical assistance” when it is in fact an indicator of the state’s deep distrust of Uzbek civil society activities.
Although the law on Non-Governmental Non-Profit Organizations provides that the state “may support” individual, useful NGO programs, the same article of the law states that “interference by government agencies and officials in the activities of NGOs is inadmissible.” In other words, the new regulations contradict existing NGO legislation, although present requirements for NGOs in Uzbekistan also amount to de facto interference by obliging them to report their activities to the Ministry of Justice.
The new government decree not only establishes total control over the implementation of NGO projects funded by foreign organizations or individuals, it literally forces NGOs to accept government officials looking over their shoulder and even interfering in their work from the day funds are received until the project is completed.
The Ministry of Justice refers to these new regulations as “mutual cooperation” of a public organization with the state administration. Mutual cooperation is to be carried out in strict accordance with the scheme proposed by the Ministry of Justice and carries legal liability for violation.
Receipt of foreign funding by NGOs must be reported to the Ministry of Justice, which then must request an opinion from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. If the Ministry of Justice approves the funding, it then appoints a national partner, which develops a roadmap with the NGO for the implementation of the project. If funding exceeds more than $55,000, the roadmap must be approved by the Ministry of Justice and Cabinet of Ministers, who can put forward suggestions or objections.
The roadmap must present all the project activities, the timeline and mechanism of implementation, as well as the territory of the project implementation. National partners are responsible for the implementation of activities identified in the roadmap and are to hold regular meetings to monitor the project as needed. The participation of a national partner in an NGO project is mandatory and refusal to participate is not stipulated by the decree.
While forcing NGOs to involve government officials in the design and implementation of their projects, the decree generously states that “the national partner is not allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of NGOs,” and that “those guilty of violating the requirements of the provision shall be liable in the manner prescribed by law.”
Uzbekistan claims to have more than 10,000 registered NGOs, but an analysis of the NGO registry reveals that each branch of the same NGO, including trade union branches and mosques in different districts and regions, is registered by local bodies and identified as a separate entity, inflating the actual number. In early 2020, the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan drafted a “code on non-state non-profit organizations,” a draft of which was presented to a narrow circle of individuals and has never been published. The registration process for independent NGOs remains complicated and overly bureaucratic, resulting in the repeated rejection of applications on spurious grounds including spelling mistakes and linguistic style.
Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Justice enjoys notable support from the local UNDP office in Tashkent, and the EU has provided a 10 million euro grant to the ministry to improve public service delivery. Is this what they had in mind?
Indeed, the new NGO regulations appear to violate the EU’s own funding guidelines. In summer 2022, the EU Commission put out a call for proposals as part of its Thematic Program on Human Rights and Democracy 2021-2027, which “aims to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, democracy and rule of law worldwide through support to civil society initiatives.” Project activities must “be designed and implemented according to the EU’s Human Rights Based Approach.” Two specific objectives for the proposal are 1) protecting civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights and 2) strengthening capacities of civil society organizations.
Furthermore, less than three weeks after the decree was passed, the EU completed negotiations for a new Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Uzbekistan. The agreement “puts a strong emphasis on shared values, democracy and the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms and sustainable development.“ It will be difficult to reconcile these commitments while the Uzbek government squeezes the life blood out of independent civil society.
If the EU and others choose to comply with these draconian new regulations, there can be little doubt that human rights NGOs, particularly those working on sensitive issues such as corruption, will be unable to access foreign funding. The most pressing human rights issues in Uzbekistan will remain under-reported and out of bounds for civil society groups that are already bereft of resources.
Compliance of foreign donors with these regulations, which would subject their grant recipients to invasive levels of control, would be a tacit legitimization of the Uzbek government’s increasing intolerance toward independent civic activity and would proactively contribute to the lack of human rights monitoring in the country. Uzbek Forum therefore calls upon the diplomatic community in Tashkent to urge the Uzbek government to abandon its regressive decree and return to its commitments to democratic reforms.
This article was first published on August 26th, 2022 in The Diplomat
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