Prague, 4 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Under a 1999 law that only began being enforced last December, international aid groups in Uzbekistan must now register with the Justice Ministry.
Previously, in a relatively simple process, foreign organizations received an annual accreditation from the Foreign Ministry. The new registration procedure, by contrast, requires the submission of a long list of documents to the Justice Ministry.
Alisher Ilkhamov, the executive director of the U.S.-based Open Society Institute (OSI) in Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL: "For registration, we have to submit the charter of our organization and of our parent organization, the sources of our funding, description of the activities of our parent organization, etc. So it's a quite big number of documents."
This week, Uzbek authorities gave the 90 or so foreign groups operating in the country until the end of this month to meet the new requirements. Twelve of them had received their official registration as of 1 March.
"You don't see that in the NGO laws -- I think -- of other European countries. Conducting activities autonomously is a core feature of a truly open civil society."
According to a December decree, foreign groups operating in Uzbekistan must provide information about their employees and the sources of their financing. Ilkhamov says it is as yet unclear how often foreign NGOs will have to submit such reporting.
Authorities in Tashkent insist the registration with the Justice Ministry is strictly a procedural matter and will not prevent NGOs from conducting their business. As justification, they refer to UN Security Council Resolution 1373 of September 2001 concerning state obligations to combat terrorism. But some of the new rules are causing concern, in particular the obligation to confer with the Justice Ministry on the holding of events, meetings, and gatherings. NGOs also are required to allow representatives from the ministry to attend such meetings.
Ilkhamov notes that it will be technically difficult to get approval for his organization's every action. "We make the decisions concerning our funding on a monthly basis. So, if one organization applies to us for a conference within two to three months, such training can take place. During these two months, we'll have -- according to the new regulation -- to apply to the Ministry of Justice to get permission for it. This can take time, and delays with the decision [can occur]," he said.
Ilkhamov also noted that the department dealing with foreign NGOs in the Ministry of Justice consists of only five people.
Rachel Denber shares Ilkhamov's worries. She is the acting director of the Europe and Central Asia division of the New York-based organization Human Rights Watch. She said the new restrictions are “cause for concern. And that's quite intrusive. You don't see that in the NGO laws -- I think -- of other European countries. Conducting activities autonomously is a core feature of a truly open civil society."
Daniel Farcis is general administrator of the Paris-based NGO Action Against Hunger. In France, he says, NGOs working domestically are required to submit annual declarations to the Interior Ministry. NGOs working abroad also additionally submit their declarations to the Foreign Ministry. These declarations include reports of their professional and financial activities. All disbursed funds for projects must be detailed.
NGOs in France can eventually be subject to controls from state bodies such as the Audit Chamber and the General Inspector of Social Affairs. NGOs also must submit to the prefecture, or local state representative, a list of communication and fund-raising operations planned for the year.
Farcis says such obligations are constraining but do not constitute strong state control. "It is not very complicated once we get familiar with the process,” he said. “[However,] it is constraining in the sense that we have to permanently respect the rules and the deadlines. At the same time, it is important because it allows avoiding that certain associations can make whatever they want. Having said that, it is not a very strong control. It's more an administrative control."
Uzbekistan has a track record of arbitrary interference with the operations of NGOs and of harassing human rights defenders. Two noted international organizations -- the Brussels-based International Crisis Group and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting -- have previously been denied registration in the country.