In a move that mimics recent acts by Russia, Poland and Hungary, the Mongolian government is preparing to debate proposed legislation that will allow government oversight of non-government organisations (NGOs). As reported by The Washington Post’s Aubrey Menarndt, the legislation requires the creation of a Civil Society Development Council, which will grant the government extensive powers over NGO operation. The Council will also require NGOs to submit annual reports that detail their funding, in an effort to reduce ‘money-laundering’ and ‘terrorist financing’. The proposed legislation prohibits NGO activities that go against ‘public unity’, and grants the government greater control over NGO funding.
While there is a general acknowledgement amongst the NGO community that Mongolia’s civil society must be streamlined, the proposed legislation has caused serious concerns. Craig Castagna, the resident program director for the International Republican Institute, told The Washington Post: “There is widespread agreement amongst stakeholders that Mongolia’s laws and regulations concerning NGOs need to be updated and streamlined, but not at the expense of restricting fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression.”
Such concerns are fueled by the use of similar legislation in Russia, known as the foreign agent’s law, to weaken civil society and increase government control. In a speech to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Permanent Council, Vienna, Ambassador Daniel B. Baer stated that, “Russia’s so-called ‘foreign agents’ law raises serious concerns about Russia’s respect for its OSCE commitments and its obligation to respect the right to freedom of association.” The Ambassador paid particular attention to the use of this law in targeting NGOs that are perceived as ‘foreign agents’, such as those that promote gender and queer equality.
The proposed legislation has the critical aim of improving Mongolia’s NGO system, but it will also grant the government effective control over NGO funding and approval. This is particularly problematic as it creates a distinct opportunity for the misuse of power, which in turn can fuel corruption. For instance, the government could force the closure of NGOs that act against the government’s interests. This essentially inhibits the ability of NGOs to hold the government to account, while simultaneously granting government control over what and whom NGOs can and cannot advocate for.
In recent years, there have been growing concerns about the threat such legislation, and the control it entails, will have on civil society. In 2012, Russia enacted the foreign agent’s law, which severely restricted the freedoms of NGOs. The legislation mandates that NGOs must register with the relevant department, and provide financial statements that detail where their funding comes from. In the following years, Poland and Hungary enacted laws that all share similar provisions to the foreign agent’s law (namely restricted access to funding for NGOs that are perceived to be a threat to social unity). Bureaucratic tools are used to weaken NGO autonomy, while a related effort is used to endorse apolitical and pro-government organisations. According to Aubrey Menarndt, Mongolia’s proposed legislation shares similar provisions, which is a cause for concern. Coupled with recent moves by the Mongolian government to limit judicial powers, the legislation could greatly impact Mongolia’s democracy.
The proposed legislation could severely restrict freedom of association in Mongolia. Such freedoms are essential to any democracy, and could indicate that Mongolia is on the precipice of further ‘democratic backsliding’. Not only does this impact NGOs, but also those for whom the NGOs advocate. In many instances, NGOs (and particularly international NGOs), are the only organisations that speak for and support disadvantaged minorities. If this is to change in Mongolia, minorities may become further disadvantaged, and potentially, persecuted.