UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: NGO registration causes controversy
BAGHDAD, 13 January 2004 (IRIN) - Worried that terrorists could use local or international aid agencies to hide what they’re doing, US administrator Paul Bremer recently issued a rule calling for all of them in the country to register.
Those who don’t register could be forced to pay five percent tax on the goods they bring into the country, according to the rules. Since Bremer is the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), or temporary administration in Iraq, the rule is legally binding.
Ultimately, those who don’t register could also be kicked out of Iraq, and that is part of what makes aid workers so annoyed, said Claudia Rodriguez, coordinator of the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq, (NCCI) who disagreed with the rule. The aid coordination group, started in April, receives funding from the United Nations and the European Union.
“As far as the international humanitarian community is concerned, they should be outraged,” Rodriguez told IRIN in Baghdad. “This is a precedent that should not be set," she asserted, adding that NGOs did not want to highlight their presence in the country for security reasons.
The new ruling calls on aid groups to register and “prevent the misuse of non-governmental organisations for fraudulent or illegal purposes.” Aid groups must say where they get their money or other support from, who contributes to it and what activities it is used for.
Those issues appear to address concerns that have been raised in the US about various questionable humanitarian agencies alleged to be funnelling money to on to supporting terrorist groups. Aid groups in Iraq will also be required to submit quarterly activity reports under the rule.
US-led administrators have met representatives of some of the unhappy groups to see what can be done to modify the rule, said Roberta Rossi, a spokeswoman for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which funds many of the US-based NGOs.
“International NGOs are unhappy about it because it’s already signed and in place,” Rossi said. “Several provisions are problematic (including) what’s going to happen once the transition takes place.”
Following the United Nations bombing on 19 August in which 22 people were killed and repeated attacks on aid agency workers, coalition troops, Iraqi police and various civilians, security is tantamount for aid workers, Rodriguez maintained.
No international or local aid office in Baghdad has a sign outside to identify what it is, and most are in private houses. A list of groups and their addresses is closely guarded by the NCCI.
Groups are afraid to give their addresses out, even to government administrators, Rodriguez said. Additionally, if aid workers do not want to affiliate themselves with the US-led temporary government, which may put them more at risk of attack, they shouldn’t have to, she asserted.
US-based aid groups often take armoured military escorts with them for protection, a measure which has drawn criticism from European aid groups and others looking to maintain a separate identity from US-led military forces in Iraq.
“We’re trying to defend the little neutral space we have left,” Rodriguez explained. “This has the potential to violate basic international laws. It’s also very ambiguous, so they can deny the right of any NGO and tell them to leave the country arbitrarily.”
Financial questions in the registration are also much more detailed than they need to be, according to Mathieu Ebbesen, operations officer at Enfants du Monde, a French NGO which receives funding from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the European Commission Humanitarian Office (ECHO), among others.
“They ask for financial information for three years before. We don’t have all the documents here,” Ebbesen said. “If we have to do it then we have to, but it’s a huge job. The situation is messy enough here, we have enough to do already.”
But aid groups have to register in any country, and Iraq should be no different, said Richard Harman, head of the US-based International Relief and Development (IRD) office in Iraq. Coalition authorities may be asking for too much information, but they’re acting as the government right now, he said. “In every country, NGOs have to register for tax status. The (rule) is pretty straight forward,” Harman said.
International Medical Corps, another US-based group, has not decided whether to register or not, said Rabih Torbay, vice president for international relief and development programs at the IMC office in Iraq. Torbay agreed with IRD that registration was always a requirement of working in a foreign country, however.
“If we have concerns about the registration, we’ll say, ‘Here are our concerns’,” Torbay said. “But usually if you don’t register, you can’t import anything or get duty-free status.”
NCCI is asking US administrators to consider amendments to the rule, especially for an expiration date, so a new process can be decided with the scheduled handover of authority to an Iraqi government at the end of June, said Philippe Schneider, Rodriguez’s counterpart.
The group also wants administrators to clarify the appeal process groups would need to use if they are denied registration, Schneider said.
Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Human Rights
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