Iraqi schoolchildren with donated books and pens. (photo: Staff Sgt. Alex Licea)
According to legal experts in the semi-autonomous, northern region, aging legislation on how NGOs can be founded and funded is having a negative impact on important social welfare work in the region. Law Number 18 was last amended in 1993.
“The law is old and has a lot of holes,” says Hokr Jatto, a local lawyer and human rights activist. “The law explicitly gives the political class the right to interfere in the NGOs.”
Jatto also points out that the role of NGOs in Iraqi Kurdistan has changed. They used to act a little bit like unions, defending the rights of those they represented – say, farmers or engineers.
The old law on NGOs says that, in order to register an organization, permission must be obtained from the authorities. “The law also allows the state to arrest or close any association that starts working before getting those permissions,” Jatto notes.
The rules around funding are also tricky, he adds, explaining that it’s very unclear where NGOs can get money from.
“We support amendments to this law or even a whole new law,” says Narudin Butti, who heads the Zheen Association for the Physically Disabled in Dohuk. “We are having a great deal of trouble getting funding.”
In the past there have been meetings and discussions organised that have brought together the heads of various NGOs in the region, says Hoshyar Malo, a lawyer and human rights activist who consults for the International Centre for Not-For-Profit Law in Iraqi Kurdistan. At these meetings the various needed amendments were identified by the NGOs themselves.
“The law is not suitable for contemporary conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan and it needs modification,” Malo confirms. “It should be more open. Lawyers also need to study it more because the law seems to be putting a lot of obstacles in the NGOs’ way.”
Funding is a particular problem, Malo explains, because the law doesn’t oblige the local authorities to help fund the NGOs nor does it specify how exactly NGOs are allowed to obtain funding from other sources. “In Article 9 the Law mentions revenues but it doesn’t talk about where the revenues come from,” Malo concluded.
One of the biggest problems with the current law is the fact that it enshrines government intervention in NGO activities. This is a reflection of the era in which the law was first written, Malo explains. The first version of the law actually appeared in the 1960s and it was amended in the 1990s.
“The essence of the law remained as it was first drafted and it is high time to change it, to make it more responsive to the spirit of modern society,” Malo argues, adding that after the next consultative conference on the topic is held in Erbil, a draft law should be ready to submit to the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament.