Human Rights Watch has called on Ecuador to revoke a new stifling decree that would give President Rafael Correa's government far-reaching powers to the power to oversee and even dissolve non-governmental organizations.
Adopted on June 4, 2013, the decree sets new procedures for Ecuadorean and international civic groups to gain legal status and go through a screening process. It also grants the government broad powers to intervene in groups' operations, limit their ability to choose their own members, and dissolve groups that compromise "public peace." These draconian regulations pose a danger to Ecuadorean civil rights and freedom of speech.
"The Correa administration has damaged free speech, expending a lot of its energy focusing on the media, and now it’s trying to trample on independent groups," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. "Officials can now essentially decide what groups may say or do, seriously undermining their role as a check on the government."
According to the Human Rights Watch, authorities are creating an electronic Unified System of Information of Social groups that will store documentation from these organizations. Government officials from ministries related to the work done by the NGO will review the documentation and grant or deny them legal status. After the initial screening process, groups must inform authorities when they select directors, legal representatives, when they add or remove a member, get government authorization to revise their by-laws, and provide authorities with information about international funding.
Authorities will also monitor groups to make sure they only carry out "authorized work" and may dissolve a group if they consider that the organization is involved in activities that "interfere with public policies that undermine national or external security of the state" or if a group is "moving away from the objectives for which it was created."
The decree also issues vague prohibitions on international groups that allow government officials to monitor their activities "to ensure the true fulfillment of its obligations" and revoke international agreement if a group violates it.
While the rights to freedom of expression and association may be subject to limitations under any government, it is unacceptable for these limitations to unfairly impede a person or a group's ability to exercise these rights.
According to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, "Respect for human rights in a democratic state depends largely on human rights defenders enjoying effective and adequate guarantees so as to freely go about their activities, and it is advisable to pay special attention to those actions that limit or hinder the work of human rights defenders."
However, Correa's decree is not the first to impose restrictions on civil society.
The government of Russia adopted a law in December 2012 that bans Russian NGOs that engage in "political" activities, receives funds emanating in the U.S., or engage in activities that "threaten Russia's interests."
The government of Bahrain also employs a law that prohibits non-governmental organizations from "engaging in politics" leaving no room for peaceful political dissent or calls for reform from civic or political groups and trade unions.
A law in Venezuela also allows the government to block organizations that "defend political rights" or groups that receive international funds are subject to strict fines and sanctions.
“Instead of adopting reasonable measures to facilitate the work of nongovernmental organizations, the Correa administration is following the lead of countries such as Russia, Bahrain, Uganda, and Venezuela, which have imposed unjustified restrictions that violate fundamental rights and limit spaces that are critical to democratic society,” Vivanco said.
Civil society that includes NGOs, trade unions and human rights defenders in any country play a vital role to ensure that basic human rights are protected. It provides the necessary checks and balances necessary for a free and healthy society and prevents the needs of citizens' from being sidelined by the government.
Penalizing and dissolving NGOs that may criticize, question or disagree with state policies does not allow for the necessary collaboration between a government and civil society.
As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay best put it: "Governments need to understand that collaboration with civil society is not a sign of weakness. It is the way to build a better, more inclusive, society — something all governments should be trying to do, and something they cannot manage on their own."