First Published: 7:28pm, Aug 07, 2013 Last Updated: 7:28pm, Aug 07, 2013
States should facilitate not restrict access to funding for human rights by NGOs
Just like the attempt to introduce detention without trial as a subterfuge for gross failure to solve rising crime rates, the Malaysian government now wants to introduce a law to stop foreign funding for legitimate human rights work by Malaysian NGOs. The fact is that, after the calculated and relentless harassment of SUARAM by the government of Malaysia for more than seven months since July 2012, ostensibly to investigate “foreign funding to destabilize the government”, the government came up with nothing.
This was despite the fact that the government agencies including the CCM carted away from SUARAM’s office all relevant documents and data relating to SUARAM’s funding. Thus, what more can a new law unravel that the CCM, ROS and Perkeso failed to uncover? The truth is that Concerned Malaysian NGOs (Comangos) have always been transparent about their funding and have been doing Malaysians a great favour by defending and promoting human rights in Malaysia.
The problem seems to be the government’s own guilty conscience and duplicitous stand on human rights. The whole harassment of SUARAM started apparently after the Jaringan Melayu Malaysia (JMM), a Government linked NGO lodged a report against SUARAM to the Company Commission of Malaysia (CCM). This harassment was clearly an attempt to try to silence SUARAM from exposing the scandal over the purchase of the Scorpene submarines.
Ironically, while SUARAM was being being investigated by no less than six government agencies, Sabah UMNO Chief Datuk Musa Aman was at the centre of a RM40 million money laundering scandal uncovered by the Hong Kong police.
Right of access to funding
The right to freedom of association is a fundamental and universal right enshrined in numerous international treaties and standards and especially Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The United Nations Human Rights Committee (CCPR) observed that the right to freedom of association relates not only to the right to form an association, but also guarantees the right to such an association to freely carry out its activities legally.
The Declaration on the rights and responsibility of individuals, groups and organs of the society to promote and defend universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms (Declaration on Human Rights Defenders) adopted the United Nations General Assembly in 1998 explicitly grants human rights defenders the right to access to funding; “Article 13 of this Declaration States, Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilize resources for the expressed purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means, in accordance with the article 3 of the present declaration”.
The Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Mr Maina Kiai which was presented in the recent 23rd Session of Human Rights Council clearly defined that; “The ability to seek, secure and use resources is essential to the existence and effective operations of any association, no matter how small.
The right to freedom of association not only includes the ability of individuals or legal entities to form and join an association but also to seek, receive and use resources – human, material and financial from domestic, foreign, and international sources.” Many human rights bodies and special procedures, particularly those within the United Nations system have emphasized the principles that access to funding is a component of the freedom of association and that NGOs should have free access to funds, including foreign funds as long as the NGOs are not involved in any malpractice or criminal activities.
Malaysian government receives the most foreign funding
The fact remains that the Malaysian government as well as many other governments in this world are the biggest receivers of foreign funding - funding from World Bank and many other monetary foundations for projects and development assistance. But why are foreign funds so nefarious when NGOs get them yet apparently uncontroversial when others do?
Mr Maina Kiai also has raised concern and questions related to double standards being practiced by the States against the NGOs in their country. Why should NGOs be singled out for restriction? It leaves the impression that their real sin is not accepting foreign contributions but criticizing the government.
“It is paradoxical that some of the States stigmatizing foreign-funded associations in their own countries are receiving foreign funding themselves (in the form of loans, financing or development assistance), often in substantially greater amounts than that flowing to CSOs in their country.
Others are the very same States providing funding to associations abroad, while rejecting foreign funding for associations in their own countries. But what is clear is that these new trends have a dramatic effect on civil society as they have not only resulted in restrictions to the enjoyment of freedom of association, but also led to further human rights violations”.
States should facilitate not restrict access to funding for NGOs
With the lack of freedom of association in Malaysia, any further restrictions on NGOs’ activities will be retrograde and completely contradictory to the Prime Minister’s promise to turn over a new leaf in terms of democratic reforms. Any regulation of NGOs should focus on their conduct, not their source of funds.
The government’s ignominious failure to pin anything on SUARAM should be a lesson for it to learn to play by the rule of law. So long as an organization is engaged in peaceful advocacy and independent in its decision making like SUARAM, even if that is critical dissent, it should be entitled to do so as a matter of right, regardless of who funds the NGO.
The Government should facilitate and not restrict the access to funding for NGOs which undertake development, human rights, environmental, as well as those that seek to increase transparency and accountability in their countries. Ultimately, it is the obligation of the Government to protect and promote this right, which is enjoyed by all citizens.
Executive Director SUARAM