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Thursday, 28, September, 2006 (05, Ramadhan, 1427)

 
Shoura Council Should Ensure the Freedom of Civil Societies Without Govt Interference
Hatoon Al-Fassi, Arab News
 

THE Shoura Council has been revising the law for societies and charitable organizations, which was issued by the Council of Ministers on 25/6/1410. Al-Jazirah published the revised law a few months ago, giving the public an opportunity to become familiar with its content before it is finally approved. Many people had the opportunity to express their views and disapproval of some of its articles which are not in line with the Kingdom’s reforms. Some of those people were Dr. Ameera Kashghari, Dr. Saleh Al-Khathlan and Dr. Yousuf Makki. The Shoura Council responded positively to articles and ideas published on the issue. It also set up a committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Suwailem to re-write the law further in the light of what was published in newspapers.

Before taking up the law for debate in November this year, the Shoura invited a group of men and women last week to advise them on a number of controversial points. I was one among those invited along with five others including Dr. Hanan Al-Ahmadi, associate professor of health department at the Institute of Public Administration, board member of the Saudi Administrative Society and chairwoman of charitable organizations; Dr. Najla Fakhruddin Reza, chairperson of Umm Al-Qura Women’s Society and Disabled Children’s Association in Makkah; Fouziya Al-Tasan, chairwoman of Al-Faisaliya Society in Jeddah; Al-Jowhara Al-Wabily, chairwoman of King Abdul Aziz Women’s Charitable Society in Qassim; and Lulwah Al-Naghemshi, chairperson of the social affairs committee of the same society. During the meeting I was asked to clarify some of my suggestions and reservations about certain articles. I thought that by writing an article on the subject, I would be able to involve more people in the discussion before the law is finalized and endorsed in November.

The Shoura committee differed on the name of the law. I wanted to call it the ‘law for the establishment of civil society.’ Many definitions have been given for the term ‘civil society’ and according to one, it is a medium between the state and individual and plays an important role in supporting the state in carrying out its duties.

A civil society means primarily a set of rules for interaction including the readiness to accept differences and the right of others to set up organizations and establishments that are in accord with their moral and material interests. Civil societies are also committed to managing differences in a peaceful and civilized way and upholding such values as tolerance, solidarity, fair competition and peaceful struggles.

Civil organizations force the state to set out charters that protect society. They also protect the basic rights of citizens, especially small groups and minorities, including the right to justice, equality, freedom and participation in the decision-making process, without affecting the state’s fundamental role of development and planning.

The civil society establishments include productive institutions, religious and educational institutions, professional groups, labor unions, political parties, cultural and social clubs and human rights organizations. People join these organizations thinking that they are capable of protecting their interests. They work independently from the state in terms of administration and finance. This also shows that individuals can organize their activities without state interference and this helps in promoting volunteer services, tolerance, multiple values and peaceful coexistence.

The new law is highly significant as it regulates civilian participation in building a modern state. Such a law must conform, not only to the country’s present progress but also with its future developments. Who will license civil institutions and organizations was one of the sensitive issues that came up at our talks. The draft law calls for the formation of a national authority, chaired by the crown prince, to license such organizations. This authority, which is a government body, will have a council composed of several ministers and will have a range of powers. This will naturally reduce the powers of civil societies. There were other options such as setting up a government or private agency or a half public-half private agency for the purpose. But in my opinion we should avoid the government-agency option if we want to preserve the independence of these societies and reduce the burden on the government and its different agencies.

In advanced societies such as in many Western countries, civil organizations do not need any license from authorities. They just inform the municipality or other authorities about their formation and do not wait for approval because establishing such societies are among their rights as citizens. They also do not need to publish their accounts, unless they transform themselves into charities in order to get tax exemptions. In my opinion, an independent private agency should be given the authority to license these societies and I believe that the National Society of Human Rights (NSHR) could do the job. The licenses should be issued quickly within a time frame and the societies must be allowed to carry out all activities without any restriction. They should also be given the right to appeal if their applications are rejected. In my view only NSHR should have the right to refuse the establishment of a society with an order from court. Moreover, the general assembly should be given the right to question the society’s board on its activities and inspect its accounts.

Another issue of contention was the sources of finance for societies as the matter requires continuous monitoring to make sure fraud does not occur. Financial sources are essential for any society to carry out its activities. The hottest issue was whether receiving assistance from foreign agencies was allowed or not. Saudi Arabia supports a large number of organizations abroad but will not allow other countries to support its organizations. This issue leads us to the relations between the Kingdom and UN organizations. Saudi Arabia is one of the leading donors to UN bodies such as the World Bank and the World Health Organization. By doing so, the Kingdom achieves only limited political gains. It rarely benefits from the services of UN organizations. Even if there are any benefits, they are at government and ministerial levels and do not reach private organizations and individuals. This is a big waste of money.

We Saudis should also be allowed accept assistance and grants offered by foreign organizations if their conditions are acceptable. The most important point is that whether it be local or foreign assistance it should not influence the independent decisions of these societies. Having a self-financing system is the preferred thing for these societies to retain their independence.

The main features of the law can be summarized as follows: It should ensure the freedom of societies without any government interference; the general assembly will be the only authority to question the board of a society, to elect the board and inspect accounts; give individuals freedom to get elected to boards of directors without any interference; it should allow them to receive financial assistance from non-governmental agencies as long as they declare the sources of finance and modes of expenditures.

Hatoon Al-Fassi is a Saudi historian based in Riyadh. She can be reached at: Hatoon-alfassi@columnist.com.