Three Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) rapporteurs issued a statement on Monday saying they were deeply concerned about possible new restrictions that could be imposed on NGOs after the Turkish Parliament’s Justice Committee approved a new bill that would provide the state more control over nongovernmental and civil society organizations.
The rapporteurs said they were concerned the controversial provisions that give the government more power to police and control NGOs, which were included in a draft bill to “Prevent the Financing and Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” could restrict NGO’s activities.
The bill was originally aimed at combatting terrorism and money laundering and is expected to be debated in the General Assembly in the coming days.
“This law could result in temporary suspensions of NGO leaders facing terror-related investigations and their replacement by government-appointed trustees, as well as more controls imposed on NGOs’ fundraising activities and donations from foreign countries,” said the statement.
Although the first six articles of the bill concern counterterrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and money laundering, the remainder includes provisions that could be used to intimidate civil society.
The PACE rapporteurs added that the new bill would add to the ongoing crackdown in Turkey on civil dissent, which had been condemned by PACE in its Resolution 2347 (2020).
The new bill stipulates that in the event an organization is investigated, the Ministry of Interior can directly remove its chairperson, appoint trustees and halt its activities without a court order. The law also allows authorities to seize the organization’s assets.
Describing this latest development as worrying, the rapporteurs said they expected Turkish authorities to respect the independence of NGOs.
“We expect the Turkish authorities to refrain from the practice of appointing trustees in the media and municipalities, which result in permanent changes of leadership and policies,” they also said.
Pointing out that the arbitrary appointment of trustees went against European democratic standards, the rapporteurs stressed that the Venice Commission highlighted this in its opinion of June 2020 and condemned the appointment of trustees in place of elected mayors.
“If adopted, the law in question would jeopardize NGOs and further undermine the foundations of the democratic functioning of Turkish society,” the rapporteurs concluded.
The new law stipulates that civil society organizations will need to obtain a license to solicit donations. If the organization collects donations without a license, they will face a stiff penalty.
It allows the Ministry of Interior to delegate its power to investigate NGOs to local law enforcement, who will have the right to confiscate all documents belonging to the organizations.
Human rights activists said this was extremely troublesome because many human rights and civil society organizations keep their records anonymous.
Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said on Twitter that the Turkish Parliament should stop its attempts to further restrict NGO activities by appointing trustees and employing restrictions on fundraising activities.
Turkey is a party to multiple human rights forums including the European Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on Civil and Political Rights that guarantee the freedom of association. The Turkish constitution similarly provides for these rights that the draft law appears to violate.