Are we moving forward? How to evaluate the development of civil society in Uzbekistan? - Dilmurad Yusupov
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Are we moving forward? How to evaluate the development of civil society in Uzbekistan?

Illustration: Eldos Fazylbekov / Gazeta.uz

Representatives of the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan and system-forming NGOs (GONGOs) report positive changes in the development of civil society. But is everything perfect, and are there any genuine improvements in the regulation of NGOs and civil society institutions in Uzbekistan? In my recent op-ed at Gazeta.uz I tried to understand whether the adopted presidential decrees since 2016 has been translated into action.

On April 30, the Ministry of Justice held a press conference at the National Press Center of Uzbekistan titled “Another step in protecting the rights and legitimate interests of non-governmental non-profit organisations.” The participants discussed the significance of the presidential decree adopted on March 3 on additional measures for state support of NGOs and the presidential decree of March 4 on the approval of the Concept for the development of civil society in 2021 2025.

Indeed, over the past four years, measures have been taken to ensure the independence and freedom of activity of NGOs and other civil society institutions to protect their legal rights and interests.

However, have these measures brought about significant quality changes? Or are the changes in the sphere of independence and freedom of activity of NGOs, protection of their rights and interests superficial, cosmetic in nature, without affecting the existing system of regulation of civil society in Uzbekistan?

Let’s try to figure out what conditions have been created for NGOs, what kind of assistance is needed for self-initiative groups struggling to register NGOs, and what barriers remain for the effective operation of independent NGOs and other civil society institutions in Uzbekistan. It seems that objective answers to these questions would help assess the effectiveness of state policy towards NGOs.

Where to work? NGO houses and coworking centres

According to the deputy chairperson of the Yuksalish National Movement, Sherzod Saparov, so-called “NGO houses” are already functioning in Navoi, Syrdarya, Khorezm, Jizzakh, Samarkand and Fergana regions to solve problems with the lack of office space for NGOs. The opening of such houses is expected soon in Bukhara and Kashkadarya regions. By the end of 2021 and in 2022, it is planned to open such houses in the remaining regions, including Tashkent.

Moreover, coworking centres created based on NGO houses in Navoi, Khorezm, Fergana and Tashkent regions have started working. The creation of NGO coworking centres is also provided for in the March presidential decree; their opening in other regions is planned for 2021-2022. Nevertheless, improving the material and technical base and the problem of lack of office space for carrying out the activities of NGOs are still acute.

According to a recent presidential decree, the placement of NGOs operating in “socially significant areas” in the “houses of NGOs” is carried out on the recommendation of the National Association of NGOs of Uzbekistan (NANNOUz). From March 3, NANNOUz had a one-month deadline to develop a procedure for issuing such recommendations based on proposals from the general public. However, more than two months have passed since the adoption of the resolution, but such an order has not been provided to the public by NANNOUz.

The problem here may be that system-forming NGOs (or GONGOs – government organised NGOs) can get a better chance of getting office space in the “houses of NGOs”.

The active and self-initiative NGOs working in socially significant spheres must have priority in the allocation of premises in the “houses of NGOs” because it is they who often literally remain on the street without the support of the state, which the system-forming NGOs use.

How to get funding? The justice authorities should still approve international grants.

At a press conference, the head of the department at the Ministry of Justice, Avazbek Madaminov, noted that according to the analysis, about 12% of national NGOs could not effectively carry out their activities due to the lack of human resources to work with international grants, lack of financial resources for the implementation of socially significant projects and other problems.

From March 1 of this year, NGOs can already receive funds and property from foreign sources and not agree with the justice authorities if the amount received for one calendar year does not exceed 100 basic calculation values (24.5 million soums, or about 2331 US dollars at the exchange rate as of April 30, 2021). Previously, this threshold was 20 BCVs. It should be noted that banks necessarily require approval from the registering authority if it is an international grant.

What socially significant project can be implemented in the amount of just over $ 2,000? For comparison, the amount of a grant for one project, allocated by the Public Fund for the Support of NGOs and Other Civil Society Institutions under the Oliy Majlis, is now up to 40 million soums. Why is it impossible to completely abandon the procedure for agreeing about the international grants with registration authorities, if NGOs still annually report on their activities?

Such a system of coordination of funds of NGOs coming from abroad makes it difficult, among other things, for the legal receipt of financial assistance from individuals living abroad. For example, many of our compatriots living in different parts of the world would like to send donations to local NGOs to help groups of children with rare diseases, socially vulnerable groups of the population, residents of areas during emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, due to the remaining approval system, it is impossible to simply transfer even $1 to the account of NGOs for the treatment of children with cancer or help victims of a dam break and expect that people will receive urgently needed funds in a few days.

Internal funding sources for NGOs are quite limited, even though the Parliamentary Commission supports NGOs with subsidies, grants and state social orders. Over the past four years, 117 billion soums have been allocated to support the activities of public organisations. For example, this year, 60 billion soums were allocated for these purposes. Until 2025, it is planned to increase this amount by 1.8 times.

What about informal volunteer groups?

At the press conference, a question was asked about how informal groups of volunteers and charity givers can register their social activities. The Ministry of Justice official, Avazbek Madaminov, recommended that they register NGOs and carry out their work formally, which would serve as a basis for the trust of society and the state and would ensure the transparency of their activities.

Avazbek Madaminov gave an example of the Yurak Amri (Call of the Heart) initiative group led by the famous singer Sardor Rakhimkhon. It turned out that the group submitted documents for the registration of NGOs once. However, after the first refusal, they did not apply again. Most likely, they did not want to waste their time, energy and resources on the registration process of NGOs, having heard about several refusals to other similar initiative groups.

In fact, many self-initiative groups of volunteers, such as Yurak Amri, want to register NGOs, but bureaucracy and red tape undermine altruistic intentions to be useful to society. This is happening with a group of young volunteers trying to register the Oltin Qanot (Golden Wing) Youth Volunteer Center, who have already received 21 denials of NGO registration since November 2018.

From May 1, the launch of the Single Interactive Portal “Shaffof Khairiya” (“Transparent Charity”) was expected to organise a centralised collection of charity and ensure transparency in its distribution. Avazbek Madaminov also recalled that this sphere of activities is regulated by the law “On Charitable Activities”. However, it remains unclear whether informal volunteer groups can register on the new portal and, based on this, carry out their charitable activities.

Human rights organisations: how many and how to register them

When asked how many human rights NGOs function in Uzbekistan and how many self-initiative groups working in this field received refusals to register their NGOs, the head of the department of the Ministry of Justice Avazbek Madaminov mentioned that more than 9,160 NGOs function in Uzbekistan.

“All non-governmental non-profit organisations can be considered as human rights NGOs, because according to the law“ On non-governmental non-profit organisations” one of their main tasks is to protect human rights and democratic values,” Avazbek Madaminov replied.

He added that at present, it is in the field of human rights protection that a small number of NGOs are working – about 15 human rights organisations throughout the republic. Madaminov named two organisations, including the Ezgulik Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan and the Huquqiy Tayanch NGO, which human rights activist Azam Farmonov could register last year.

“Organisations that proclaim themselves human rights defenders tend to defend civil and political rights. I do not think that there are many NGOs in the list of 9160 NGOs that protect civil and political rights … And often it is this intention to work in this field that becomes a stumbling block on the way to registering such NGOs,” said human rights activist Shukhrat Ganiev.

Considering that about 66% of registered NGOs are “system-forming” and that almost half of them were created by appropriate government decisions, then, in fact, can GONGOs be considered independent “human rights organisations”?

Has it become easier to register independent NGOs?

On April 20, Shukhrat Ganiev received the ninth refusal to register his NGO Humanitarian Legal Center in Bukhara. This time he was informed that he had not fully paid the state registration fee. At the same time, it is not clear why the representatives of the registering authority did not inform about this when receiving the application documents? In addition, he was pointed out that something was wrong with the members of the board of the organisation. However, the complete personal details of all members of the board were provided according to the template.

“The situation itself seems absurd to me. When, on the one hand, as an expert, I am invited to be a member of commissions and groups under the Oliy Majlis or the Ombudsman, and at the same time, attempts to gain legitimacy as a team, as an organisation run into a stone wall … After all, my recent attempt to register an NGO is an attempt to enable nine young people who already have experience of working with the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations, to work within the framework of public monitoring of a non-governmental non-profit organisation. And it is not clear why one official department recognises us as experts, while the other stubbornly refuses to give registration,” says Shukhrat Ganiev.

Earlier this year, the international human rights organisation Human Rights Watch published a report on problems with the registration of independent groups in Uzbekistan, noting that the outdated procedure restricts the right of association enshrined in the Constitution of Uzbekistan. The HRW material provided a list of independent self-initiative groups such as Chiroq (Light) in Karakalpakstan, Humanitarian Legal Center, Restoration of Justice, Human Rights House, I am Alive (a shelter for homeless animals in Fergana) and Oltin Qanot.

Last year, together with a lawyer, Oybek Isakov, we interviewed ten self-initiative groups wishing to register NGOs. Based on the analysis of the refusal letters and the data received, we then concluded that it takes an average of 7 to more than 10 months to register an independent NGO. Leonid Khvan, PhD in law, also argued in his analysis that the current procedure for registering NGOs contradicts the principles and provisions of the Law on Administrative Procedures.

We have already written about the experience of using the bot for legal aid developed by the system-forming NGO Madad. In response to a request for help through the bot, an answer was given that there is already a similar NGO… The samples of NGO charters promised by the Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov have not yet been published.

The quantity of NGOs does not always speak about their quality

9160 NGOs seems like a big figure, but according to the old methodology, the Ministry of Justice considers regional, city and district branches of one organization to be separate NGOs. Thus, if the territorial branches of large NGOs are counted as one organization, then the above number will be significantly reduced.

For example, last year, after the creation of the Ministry for Support of Mahalla and Family, GONGOs such as the Women’s Committee of Uzbekistan, the Republican Council for the Coordination of the Activities of Citizens’ Self-Government Bodies and the Nuroniy Foundation, as well as their numerous territorial divisions, were abolished.

However, is it possible to assess the development of NGOs and other civil society institutions only by the number of registered organisations? Such a quantitative assessment does not always indicate the quality and effectiveness of NGOs. For this assessment of the development of the third sector in Uzbekistan, it is necessary to rely on several factors and indicators.

Since April 1 of this year, the justice authorities have been developing and introducing the “Index of openness of NGO activities”, which is formed following the procedure established by the Public Chamber under the President, NANNOUz and the Ministry of Justice. Also, a rating of NGO activities is being introduced, published annually based on the organisations’ activities.

The new conditions for the openness of NGOs require NGOs to publish a detailed report on the work done. However, the notification of all activities of NGOs is already sent to the justice authorities 20 days before the event, and the received international grants must be coordinated with the justice authorities, indicating the amount received from a foreign donor and details on how the funds will be spent.

One gets the impression that the relevant authorities, through NANNOUz, want to exercise strict supervision over every action of NGOs, which contradicts the general principles of the activities of civil society institutions. At the same time, the Ministry of Justice itself recently proposed establishing responsibility for the interference of government agencies in the activities of NGOs.

Why not also introduce the “Index of the openness of the activities of the justice authorities” that register NGOs? For example, as in the World Bank’s Doing Business Assessment, it is possible to implement the indicator “Registration of NGOs”, which would include parameters such as the total number of procedures, the total number of days, and the cost of preparing constituent documents (% of income per capita). After all, each repeated submission of documents for registration of NGOs is an additional cost for initiative groups and a missed opportunity for the development of an independent civil society.

Hope for real systemic improvements

The May decree of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev three years ago promised great hopes for the implementation of fundamental changes in increasing the role of civil society institutions in the democratic transformation of the country. Nevertheless, outdated and unnecessary bureaucratic requirements and obstacles prevail over the provision of genuine freedom and independence for the activities of NGOs. In addition, the promised Public Chamber under the President is also being created for a year already …

A notable event in 2020 was that Uzbekistan was elected a UN Human Rights Council member. But this did not fundamentally change the situation with the registration of self-initiative NGOs in Uzbekistan. Of course, it cannot be denied that there are targeted improvements in the registration process, but the “internal cuisine” itself has not changed.

Justice Ministry officials claim that they study the documents of self-initiative groups, strictly following the letter of the law and established procedures. However, those wishing to register NGOs indicate that the registration process remains opaque and bureaucratic. The reasons for the lack of transparency lie in the anonymous examination of the constituent documents of NGOs by third organisations.

The hopes of independent civil society activists for the timely adoption of the Code on NGOs in line with international standards are dwindling. One gets the impression that the registration authorities are quite satisfied with the existing system of registration and control of independent NGOs, which does not advise, does not provide the necessary assistance – and thus does not comply with the requirements of the Law on Administrative Procedures.

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