By Mian Zahid Ghani
New York: The Pakistani government’s decision to shut down at least 10 organizations without providing valid reasons violates rights to freedom of expression and association, Human Rights Watch said today. Organizations affected include prominent groups working on human rights, humanitarian assistance, and development issues.
On December 14, 2017, several international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), including Open Society Foundations and ActionAid, told the media that they had received letters from the federal government rejecting their applications for registration. The government has not published the list of affected groups, but according to media reports, none have been provided with reasons for the decision.
“The Pakistani government’s closure of international organizations without allowing these decisions to be contested shows disturbing disregard for the well-being of ordinary Pakistanis who benefit from them,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should be facilitating the vital work of independent groups, not obstructing it with intimidation tactics.”
The “Policy for Regulation of INGOs in Pakistan,” announced on October 1, 2015, contains vague and overly restrictive regulations that have harmed the work climate for many international groups, Human Rights Watch said. The regulations require all INGOs to register and obtain prior permission from the Ministry of Interior to carry out any activities in the country, and restrict their operations to specific issues and geographical areas. The ministry is broadly empowered to cancel registrations on grounds of “involvement in any activity inconsistent with Pakistan’s national interests, or contrary to Government policy”—terms that have vague meanings and can be used for political reasons to target critical organizations or individuals.
Pakistan’s government has the responsibility to prevent fraud, financial malfeasance, and other illegal activities by INGOs, but Pakistan already has other laws and regulations that address such concerns, Human Rights Watch said. The INGO regulations severely restrict rights to freedom of association and expression for Pakistanis working for INGOs, as well as for foreign nationals. These rights are protected under the Pakistani constitution and international human rights law.
International groups make significant contributions to Pakistan in safeguarding and promoting health, nutrition, education, sanitation, food security, and the rule of law and human rights, among many other areas. International humanitarian and development organizations working in Pakistan employ thousands of Pakistanis, contribute hundreds of millions of US dollars to the national economy, and, working alongside their local partners, reach an estimated 20 million Pakistanis with assistance and services every year.
Under the regulations, all international organizations are required to obtain permission in advance from a government “INGO committee” chaired by the secretary of the Ministry of Interior before carrying out any activity in Pakistan. The committee has the power to rescind that permission at any time, for vaguely defined reasons.
The regulations provide for a right of appeal only on decisions by the INGO committee to cancel registration. The appeals process, to a Special Ministerial Committee, will be final, denying the groups any recourse through an independent judicial process.
The Pakistani government should revise the policy for INGOs so that it does not contravene the rights to freedom of expression and association, and cannot be misused for political reasons to restrict the peaceful activities of nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said.
“The recent action against nongovernmental organizations comes amidst a shrinking space for free expression and dissenting voices,” Adams said. “Placing arbitrary restrictions on international groups is likely to increase the climate of fear for domestic organizations.”