Legal status and operational freedom of civil society

The Jordanian Constitution grants the freedom of association in Article 16. There are 127 international non-governmental organisations and 4 500 local organisations operating in the civil society sector, in addition to numerous initiatives and platforms for volunteering (Inform, 2015). Recent data from the Ministry of Social Development for 2016 estimates that 5 108 civil society organisations are active in Jordan.

International indexes take a critical stance towards the level of freedom for CSOs to operate in Jordan. Although Jordan’s status improved from “not free” to “partly free” in the 2017 Freedom in the World report, thanks to the approval of the 2015 Election Law, Freedom House stresses that the exercise of political rights (score: 5/7, 7 being the worst) and civil liberties (5/7, 7 being worst) continues to be challenging. The Transformation Index of the Bertelsmann Foundation (2016) ranks Jordan 88 out of 129 developing and transition countries in the political transformation sub-index (“moderate autocracy”), and 75 in good governance (“weak transformation management”).

In OECD countries, civil society organisations fulfil many different roles. They act as watchdogs of government’s activities, exercise public scrutiny over budget allocations, and provide a space for the collective action of less organised groups in society, including women, youth, disabled and minorities. In this sense, CSOs are a fundamental actor to preserve and strengthen democratic governance and defend civil rights and liberties.

There are significant differences regarding the organisation and work of CSOs in Jordan and most OECD countries. In Jordan, CSO activity is often rooted within the tribal system and has a long tradition of providing charity and welfare services alongside the activities of the government and the Royal Court. Jordanian CSOs with an agenda to defend fundamental rights and freedoms only started to emerge after the Kingdom acceded to international conventions (International Center for Not-for-Profit Law). Some CSOs in the area of service provision, Royal NGOs (RONGOs) and Government NGOs (GONGOs), benefit from the financial support and operational freedom granted by the authorities. The organisation of CSOs along tribal affiliations and their financial dependency on the government or the Royal Court have raised the question as to whether they can be considered CSOs in the first place (Identity Centre, n.d.).

The rights and responsibilities of civil society organisations in Jordan are regulated by the Law of Societies (No. 51 of 2008) as amended by Law No. 22 of 2009 (International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, ICNL). The law stipulates that for any CSO to be able to operate legally, it must be registered with the National Registry of Societies of the Ministry of Social Development, which is considered an independent entity. The Registration Management Council is responsible for its management and supervision. Despite the simplification of registration procedures in recent years, the Council still has the right to reject any application without stating a justification. Potential barriers to the entry and operation of foreign societies prevail as neither the main office nor any of its branches are allowed to have political or religious goals - a clause which can potentially limit their autonomy. Foreign donations to any Jordanian society are subject to the approval of the Council of Ministers.

On 17 March 2016, the Ministry of Social Development announced a series of draft amendments to the 2008 Law No. 51 on Society. The move sparked an intense debate about the future ability of CSOs in Jordan to fulfil the diversity of roles as outlined above.

If the amendments pass in their current form6:

  • • A minimum of 50 people would be required to form a society. This condition risks undermining the emergence of small-scale CSOs, which, given their diversity, have traditionally played an important role in providing services for neglected groups in society and strengthening accountability mechanisms.
  • • The government would have broad discretion to prohibit the establishment of organisations on the grounds of violating “national security, public safety, public order, public morals, or the rights and freedoms of others”.
  • • Branch offices of international organisations would face additional layers of approval for inter-organisational transfers of funds, while the government would determine the duration of the branch office’s registration.
  • • Jordanian CSOs would be subject to new requirements and restrictions regarding their ability to secure funding from outside of Jordan (International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, 2017).
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