Sayed Ikram Afzali | @SIAfzali
Executive Director, Integrity Watch Afghanistan
Civic space is “the ability of people to freely organize, participate, and communicate about policy.” Civic space is also about “the capacity for citizens to participate in the different stages of the policymaking process.” Civic space is necessary to take democracy beyond the ballot box as CIVICUS puts it: “A robust and protected civic space forms the cornerstone of accountable, responsive democratic governance and stable societies.” Afghanistan can only move out from the current crisis of governance caused by prevalent corruption facilitated by an elite capture of the state and ensure stability if this space is protected not restricted.
As the Afghan Government prepares to showcase its progress in the fight against corruption in the upcoming Geneva Conference on Afghanistan and as the peace negotiations with the Taliban are pushing slowly forward, the Afghan Government has at the same time been making attempts to restrict civic space. Attempts to amend the NGO Law and the Media Law to add new restrictions, aggressive language used against civil society organizations, and attempts to sideline genuine civil society representatives are incongruous with the objectives to secure donor support during the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan and to defend democratic values during the peace negotiations.
The draft NGO law is an attempt to put unnecessary restrictions on the NGOs involved in advocacy and service delivery in different parts of the country. There were several rounds of discussions with NGO representatives but the consultations were purely symbolic as the government went on to present the draft amendments at a Cabinet meeting without addressing most of the civil society concerns. The Cabinet rightfully sent the law back to the Ministry of Justice to consider civil society comments. Amnesty International states the “draft NGO Law threatens civil society organizations in Afghanistan. The bill directly infringes on human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and association, guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Afghanistan is a state party.” The government should allow civil society comments such as those by Integrity Watch and by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law to be discussed and incorporated in a new draft.
In addition, the government approved amendments to the Media Law are very restrictive and would have resulted in censorship before and after publication. The Cabinet approved the amendments quietly and the law was set to be sent the Parliament for approval. However, the government withdrew from its position following civil society representatives’ protest against the amendments.
Afghanistan is a member of the Open Government Partnership and therefore the government must respect the commitment it made in the Open Government Declaration when it joined the OGP process in 2016. Here is a reminder what the declaration says:
We value public participation of all people, equally and without discrimination, in decision making and policy formulation. Public engagement, including the full participation of women, increase the effectiveness of governments, which benefit from people’s knowledge, ideas and ability to provide oversight. We commit to making policy formulation and decision making more transparent, creating and suing channels to collect public feedback, and deepening public participation in developing, monitoring and evaluating government activities. We commit to protecting the ability of not-for-profit and civil society organizations to operate in ways consistent with our commitment to freedom of expression, association, and opinion.
Afghanistan is at a critical juncture where it has to end the war and bring peace but it also has to defend freedom of expression and freedom of association, to defend state institutions against elite capture and corruption and to ensure good governance and stability. The leadership of the government must act responsibly.