• Press Release

Americas: Proposed Laws Would Severely Restrict Civil Society’s Work in Region

June 26, 2024


Amnesty International is raising an alarm about the proliferation of legal initiatives to curtail the work of civil society organizations and seriously threaten their efforts to promote and defend human rights in the region.

Taking cues from questionable, regressive and authoritarian measures that certain countries in the region have adopted, the parliaments of Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela are currently considering passing laws that would arbitrarily restrict and unduly interfere with civil society organizations, associations, and groups. These measures threaten to silence criticism, compromise the pursuit of justice and undermine progress on human rights.

“States must stop striving to silence human rights organizations and restrict civic spaces where anyone can participate and freely express their opinions without fear of reprisal. These repressive trends are a major blow to human rights in the region,” said Ana Piquer, Amnesty International’s Americas director.

If passed, these laws would violate states’ international human rights commitments, in particular the rights to freedom of association, freedom of expression, privacy, the right to participate in political affairs, and the right to promote and defend human rights.

Different means to the same end: stifling civil society

In the last few months alone, Peru’s congress has considered six bills that could inhibit the work of civil society organizations and institutions that receive international cooperation funds. These bills were approved by the Foreign Relations Committee on June 5 and can still be evaluated by the Plenary Body of Congress or the Standing Committee.

Meanwhile, the Senate of Paraguay has since December 2023 been analysing a bill on “control, transparency, and accountability for nonprofit organizations” that could unjustly restrict civil society organizations’ access to resources and establish excessive punishments.

These legal initiatives also bear similarities to Venezuela’s bill on “Control, Regularization, Operations and Financing of Non-Governmental and Related Organizations,” which was approved in the National Assembly’s preliminary debate in January 2024 and which has sparked concern among several UN special rapporteurs. This bill complements other relatively recent initiatives that seek to curtail the rights to freedom of expression and association in order to silence political dissent.

While the bills take different approaches, they all share alarming features. Their rationale is often a supposed need to boost transparency, despite the multiple controls countries already have in place to hold civil society organizations accountable. In practice, these bills often use vague and imprecise language to conduct disproportionate, arbitrary, and unjust controls of the operational and financial information of civil society organizations. Such measures could keep the organizations from securing the resources and permits they need to receive funding. They could jeopardize the independence of the organizations’ activities and threaten the security and privacy of their members and the people whose rights they seek to defend and protect.

If civil society organizations fail to comply with the abusive measures in these bills, they could be completely disbanded without due process or, in the case of Venezuela, their members could be criminally prosecuted. All of these punishments are violations of international human rights law, which states that under no circumstances can restrictions to freedom of association be excessive or so burdensome that they jeopardize the right itself.

All of these bills have been debated without any broad and participatory public consultation process. All relevant entities and rights holders should first be thoroughly consulted before creating laws that affect civil society organizations. These stakeholders should include human rights defenders and civil society organizations, which should be able to participate without fear of reprisal.

“These bills would also directly affect everyone who receives assistance from civil society organizations. Historically, human rights organizations in Peru, Paraguay and Venezuela have contributed immensely to building a fairer and more just society, and this contribution should be publicly acknowledged by the authorities. Instead of hindering civil society organizations with unjust penalties or other obstacles to their work, the states should guarantee that they can freely and safely go about their work without fear of reprisals or punishment for simply defending human rights,” said Ana Piquer.

Using laws to shrink civic space: an alarming trend in the Americas

Unfortunately, the recent experiences of Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela are not isolated incidents. Rather, they reflect a worrying regional and global ripple effect, where countries emulate each other in passing laws that restrict civil society’s space for action and silence dissenting voices. This trend has emerged in the Americas, where similar initiatives have been approved or debated in countries such as Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico.   

“Organizations, groups, and civil society movements are the cornerstone when it comes to defending human rights, preserving independence in government branches, and preventing impunity,” said Ana Piquer. “And many human rights violations we face in the region are rooted in transnational phenomena, like violence and forced migration, so any threat to freedom of association, even at the local level, can cause the human rights situation of the whole region to deteriorate.”

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