It goes without saying that civil society organizations that have not received “the go ahead” to operate under the notorious law of associations implemented by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor didn't have a place at the recent conference, which should have looked past protocols and allowed for the presence and participation of all kinds of groups working on community issues, as the conference’s focus was social development.

However, the conference, and especially first lady Asma al Assad’s remarks had a number of positive and promising points. We believe the time is ripe for the Syrian government to change its backward unilateral vision toward civil society, and to embrace a modern democratic vision that says that civil society can be a partner to the government, while remaining an independent critic, neither submissive nor dependent.

Of the positive outcomes from the conference was the recognition for the first time, on an official level, of “civil society,” that described it accurately as all forms of non-governmental community organizations that renounce violence. The term “civil society” has been victim during the last decade of huge efforts to distort its meaning, especially the smear campaign undertaken by the government to label “civil society” as an “opposition” to the regime.

The Syrian Women Observatory (SWO), along with other forces in Syrian society, has played a large role in changing the meaning of “civil society” over the past few years, through its continuous work to clarify the meaning of this term, showing that civil society is not necessarily opposed to the regime (in Syria or elsewhere). SWO has also made clear that the term “al Ahli society” 1 has no place in a modern state, even for characterizing charitable organizations and associations. It also clarified that charitable work is a basic part of civil society and in no way diminishes from its importance and necessity despite the gaps and pitfalls it suffers from, mostly due to the current notorious law of associations, which the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor implemented in a ridiculously dogmatic way.

Mrs. Al Assad said in her opening remarks, “civil society plays an increasingly important role in supporting the development process throughout the world…” It is important to note that even though she also used the term “al ahli” in her remarks and that the term “al ahli” was in the secondary title of the conference “The Role of Al Ahli Society in Development” none of this diminishes from the importance what she said.

Recognizing that the correct term is “civil society” rather than “al ahli society” is an indirect positive step of utmost importance. While a lot has been written on the difference between the two terms, this can be summarized by saying that “al ahli” is what predates “civil,” whereas “civil” is connected to the modern state and the idea of citizenship and social unity. “Al ahli” can also associated with sectarian, tribal and familial divisions.

On another front, Mrs. Al Assad said that the Syrian government has undertaken “a new law for non governmental societies and associations in cooperation with representatives of the civil sector, which is now being reviewed by the concerned authorities and is in its final stages.” Mrs. Al Assad also pointed out that this law “will be able to achieve a quantum leap in this sector.”

She added that the project will “set the stage for the next step of work consistent with our ambitions, and it is necessary that the associated implementation procedures correspond with its substance in order to achieve the goals it sets out to accomplish.” She also pointed out that the number of authorized associations in Syria has increased by 300 percent in the past five years.

For the past four years, Syrian civil society has raised its voice calling for a new modern and democratic law for associations that keeps pace with the needs of Syrian society and its continual development. However, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, and those who are behind it, did their best to keep the law and its implementation procedures untouched. What Mrs. Al Assad said is truly a cause for optimism, especially since she made a point of referring to the implementation procedures in this new law; and any good law needs clear and good implementation procedures. However, that alone does not suffice. Any law under the umbrella of a ministry like this, will not be able to achieve anything important.

This also brings us back to the same old questions: Why this law has not been proposed to the public so that everyone can know what the discussion is about? Why is the Ministry being careful to make this law a secret? This is a real cause for worry. The basic problems with the current law (even has got problems on all levels) are that it raises fear, especially concerning the absolute power of the Ministry over the work of civil society associations, from its absolute ability to dissolve any organization’s board of directors to its ability to shutdown the whole organization. In addition, there is no end to the requirements necessary to get consent for every single move the association would like to make. And of course, the Ministry serves as both judge and jury when problems arise between associations and the Ministry itself.

The number of associations has, without a doubt, increased by 300 percent. However, that does not give a precise indication of the reality of the licensing of organizations in Syria, since the Ministry still controls any authorized association. That is why few, if any, real “civil society” associations has been licensed. We have spoken many times previously about the Ministry’s refusal to license a number of professional associations, as well as ones related to women’s rights and human rights on the grounds that they are not needed.

For all the above mentioned reasons, This new law must be truly democratic and give the law to its rightful owners. That is to say, it must restore the exclusive right to civil court judges to license associations, resolve any potential disputes, and restore the right of disclosure and licensing to associations that meet the requirements and do not espouse violence, sectarian strife, or other similar prohibitions. This new law must not allow for the Ministry to have any power over preventing or dissolving organizations except though action taken in civil court.

Therefore, Mrs. Al Assad’s opening remarks carry grave importance. We can only hope that they get the attention they deserve in order to help civil society truly strengthen its role, not just in economic growth, but also in societal development as a whole, as well as in strengthening the notion of citizenship, especially in opposing violence, and discrimination against women. Combating this violence and discrimination forms one of the most important aspects in development. As Mrs. Al Assad said a year and some months ago, in her opening remarks at the Second Conference for the Arab Women Organization held in the United Arab Emirates, “the nation will not be safe as long as half of it is not safe.”

By Bassam AlKadi, 27/1/2010, (A Major Step Forward: First National Conference for Development in Syria Recognizes “Civil Society” ), Syrian Women Observatory

Translated by Elizabeth Broadwin & Sheila Weaver, edited by Basel Jbaily

source in Arabic