Peregraf- Ghamgin Mohammad
Zanst Karim and several colleagues wanted to establish an NGO to support and study elections and democracy in the Kurdistan Region. Full of ambition, they quickly secured all of the documents and qualifications that it takes to obtain an official license and applied for registration in 2021.
According to the Law No. 1 of 2011 on NGOs in the Kurdistan Region, their application should have taken no more than 30 days to be processed by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Department of Non-Governmental Organizations. But it took more than a year to receive an answer.
"After 11 visits, the NGO Department decided to reject our organization in March 2023 on the grounds of lack of clarity [in our application] and the incompatibility of our organization's goals with NGO work," Karim told Peregraf regarding his proposed project, the Ballot Organization for Elections and Democracy.
He added that under the law they should have been notified within 15 days if the NGO Department had any questions or comments, so that they could respond properly. However, they were not given that opportunity.
Karim’s experience is by no means unique. Onerous bureaucracy and endless delays are typical when trying to register a new NGO or renew a license for an existing one.
"If our organization was a charity, we would have received a quick response. But because we are an organization that wants to work in the field of democracy and elections, they have created problems for us," he said.
The KRG’s NGO Department is affiliated with the Council of Ministers and has been active for more than a decade. Its work is regulated by Law 1 of 2011, which states that establishing an organization is a constitutional right and that there should be no obstacles beyond the requirements established under the law.
There are currently 4,806 registered NGOs in the Kurdistan Region. Most of them work in the humanitarian and development fields, according to statistics from the NGO Department. All NGOs registered with the Department are required to submit a financial report, even if they have no income.
In the past, the KRG even provided funding for NGOs, but that practice was scrapped to save money after the 2015 financial crisis in the Kurdistan Region.
Barzan Akram Mantak, the current head of the NGO Department, denied that there has been an increase in bureaucracy and delays, as many applicants contend.
"Audits of the applications have increased from the legal side," he said. It depends on "the extent to which organizations have complied with the legal provisions because most of the NGOs have problems in their cases."
Mantak argued that many prospective NGOs have not organized their applications well, so the Department has to get them in order first in order to properly consider the files.
But the experience of applicants suggest that the problems are pervasive. Rastgo Hasib, a lawyer and founder of five organizations, submitted an application to the NGO Department thirteen months ago, but has not been invited for an interview to review his application yet.
"This delay makes a group that has passion…lose their passion. It makes it divided and bored," Hasib told Paragraf. "My experience has shown that the establishment of any NGO is viewed politically. The establishment of any organization is personal and administrative, and not legal."
The law states that if the NGO Department does not respond within 30 days from the submission of the application, then the new organization shall be considered registered and documentation to that effect should be issued. But the process does not work like that in practice.
Shokhan Ahmad, coordinator of the Federation of Civil Society Organizations told Peregraf that "there have been obstacles from the Department to quickly implementing the requirements of NGOs in administrative orders and financial reports."
"The Department should respond to letters as soon as possible. [Doing otherwise] disrupts the affairs of organizations and prevents them from implementing their projects on time and properly," she said.
Ahmad also called on the Department to look into those NGOs which are no longer operational, but still exist on paper. Mantak, the Department head, said that 40 to 50 percent of the NGOs registered in the Department coordinate with it.
These challenges face both local NGOs and those based abroad. The US State Department noted in its 2022 annual report on human rights that the Department has strict procedures for registration and the renewal of licenses. There have been proposals in the past to reform the law, but they have not resulted in anything substantive.
Moreover, the Department does not allow NGOs in registered in Baghdad to work in the Kurdistan Region without separate approval. Nevertheless, some NGOs still obtain federal liscenes because the process in the Kurdistan Region is so difficult. Under Law 1 of 2011, any NGO licensed by the Iraqi government is considered registered in the Kurdistan Region as well.
Karim has filed paperwork in Baghdad to get his NGO registered there.
"The EU representative told us that they and other organizations are paying attention to the work of our NGO," he said.
"As a lawyer, if someone asks me to establish an NGO, I tell them it is very difficult, so try to partner with someone who [already] has an NGO or get a branch of a registered NGO," Hasib said.
In the context of the complaints, the Department decided to begin naming and shaming NGOs for alleged legal violations in posts on its website. The Federation of Civil Society Organizations strongly objected, calling it an "abuse of power."
Mantak countered that "unfortunately, the NGOs did not comply with the law before … [they] must comply with the law and guidelines."
Ahmad said that some NGOs fail to register and "do not see the law as an obstacle to the proper implementation of their business." But most want the certainty of official status.
To that end, Karim and his colleagues at the Ballot for Elections and Democracy have filed a lawsuit against the NGO Department and are awaiting the decision of the court.