Proposed legislative amendments could significantly undermine the progress of civil society in Azerbaijan. If they become law these changes would impose burdensome administrative requirements, impose prohibitive sanctions for non-compliance and restrict advocacy activities for not-for-profits.
This worrying development is particularly disappointing in a country that, according to ICNL, has been developing dynamically since the country gained independence in 1991 with more than 2,700 currently registered not-for-profits. An increasingly vibrant component of civil society, not-for-profits in Azerbaijan are engaged in diverse spheres of activity, including human rights, education, culture, health, social protection and environmental protection.
Proposals drafted by the Legal Policy and State Building Committee have been submitted to Parliament (as of January 2014) that, if enacted, will require not-for-profits to re-register every year. Annual re-registration has few benefits for either the state, or civil society as it merely diverts time away from charitable activities without providing stronger accountability to the public. In fact, by requiring not-for-profits to re-register, the government are essentially calling their own capacity to regulate the sector using the less intrusive methods into question – and undermining public trust in the regulatory system in the process.
Indeed, our recent report of the Future World Giving project, Building Trust in Charitable Giving, had as a basic requirement (Tier 1) for governments intent on improving public trust in not-for-profits that;
Organisations should not be required to re-register as long as they are meeting reporting requirements and abiding by terms of their registration.
Though imposing the requirement to re-register annually is certainly regressive, sadly, if the legislation comes into force in Azerbaijan it will not be unique.. In Uganda, not-for profits are expected to re-register every year, paying a fee each time. Similarly, Nepalese not-for-profits must re-register annually, undergoing a cripplingly bureaucratic process to do so.
In addition requiring annual re-registration, the proposed legislative amendments seek to raise the risk of non-compliance with reporting and registration requirements to a level that is so excessive, it could have a chilling effect on the independence of civil society. The new regime would impose sanctions ranging from between 2500-3000 AZN (approximately 3190 – 3830 USD) on NGOs and between 1000-2000 AZN (approximately 1280 – 2560 USD) on the leadership of NGOs for failing to submit information or for submitting “false information.”
As the next report of the Future World Giving project, “Enabling an Independent Not-for-profit Sector” will establish, It is important that fines and sanctions strike a balance between deterring breaches of the rules whilst not posing such personal risk that they dissuade individuals from engaging in the sector. Regrettably, it appears that this balance is abut to be lost in Azerbaijan.
The increased bureaucracy, financial risk and barriers to entry faced by not-for-profit leaders contained in the proposed amendments to Azerbaijani law are compounded, according to CIVICUS, by limits on the ability of organisations “speak out against government actions.” The governments tolerance for advocacy activities has grown increasingly thin recently, mirroring a worrying international crackdown on campaigning and political activities.
In detailing the difficulties faced in arranging a meeting of the Azerbaijan Civil Society Defense Committee, which has been formed to respond to recent threats to the independence of civil society, Gubad Ibadoglu, the groups coordinator commented that “highlighted the representatives are obstructed in not only expressing their thoughts freely but in arranging meetings related to their projects and programs”.
In the same vein, human rights and advocacy-based civil society organisations like the Human Rights Club and the Elections Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre have been denied permission to register despite repeated attempts by these organisations to complete their registration. Due to be released in March, Enabling an Independent Not-for-profit Sector will illustrate how restricting the ability of not-for-profit organisations to speak out on issues that are relevant to their mission undermines their independence in the eyes of donors and limits their capacity to influence positive change.
All of the above only adds to the sense that the Azerbaijani government is attempting to reverse the hard won gains that civil society has achieved in recent years. Changes to the NGO Law in March 2013 that imposed additional administrative requirements for organisations in receipt of funds from international donors are part of a wider international crackdown on foreign funding of not-for-profits. But in Azerbaijan, it seems that, that was only the start of a spate of regressive policies.