YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–A key watchdog of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has given a mostly negative assessment of government-drafted amendments to an Armenian law regulating the work of non-governmental organizations, it emerged on Wednesday.
The National Assembly recently postponed planned debates on the amendments amid an outcry from many local civic groups worried about greater government restrictions on and interference in their activities.
The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) passed judgment on the government bill in response to a request from the Armenian Ministry of Justice. “Some of the changes could possibly be interpreted as improvements of the workings of public organizations in Armenia, but others impose additional burdens,” it concluded in a written report.
The ODIHR believes that the bill is “heavily tilted in favor of the burdens and attempts to strengthen the control of the State over public organizations.” “Some of the provisions are therefore difficult to justify, and are in tension with international standards and practices which even further buttresses the need for additional deliberations with the participation of the affected parties,” it said.
The Warsaw-based watchdog was specifically concerned about two of the proposed amendments. One of them requires Armenian NGOs to re-register with the Ministry of Justice in case of an address or leadership change. The other requires them to publicize more detailed financial reports and other information about their activities.
That would include sources of revenue, transactions exceeding one million drams ($2,650), costs incurred by an organization “according to areas,” and monthly membership numbers. The ODIHR said this would place “significant burdens on public organizations and threatens to ruin smaller organizations financially.”
Its written opinion was welcomed on Wednesday by both the Ministry of Justice and a coalition of about 150 NGOs opposed to the legislation. “It is very similar to our position,” Zhirayr Edilian, a representative of the coalition, told RFE/RL.
Arsen Stepanian, an expert at the Yerevan-based Fund for Civic Development and Cooperation, urged the Armenian government to draft the bill anew in collaboration with civil society representatives. “In terms of forming a democratic participatory culture, it would be right to start the process anew,” he said.
Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian, meanwhile, put a brave face on the ODIHR report, saying that its conclusions are mostly in tune with the Armenian government’s view. He insisted that the government bill is not fraught with any risks for NGOs and is aimed at making them more transparent.
“There is nothing in the bill about strengthening [government] oversight of the NGOs,” Danielian told RFE/RL. He said at the same time that his ministry will make changes in the bill before re-introducing it to the National Assembly.
Rafik Petrosian, deputy chairman of the parliament committee on human rights and public affairs, told RFE/RL that the panel may well block the bill if the government fails to take into account the OSCE recommendations.