U.S. Statement on Civic Space and NGOs

U.S.  – Item 8 Statement, on Civic Space
Human Rights Council 30th Session
As Delivered by Ambassador Keith Harper
September 28, 2015

Thank you, Mr. President.

In the past, the United States has recommended that other states repeal laws that restrict civil society.  Some respond to the recommendation with the inaccurate claim that the U.S. has similar laws.  I will take this opportunity to discuss U.S. regulations of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, and how they in fact encourage and assist NGOs to be active, rather than restrict and repress them.

The ability of a person to organize with others and form groups is highly valued in the United States.  U.S. law is designed to support and help people who want to form civil society organizations.

There are about a million and half non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the United States.  One can find an NGO in the U.S. on virtually every conceivable topic.  The U.S. does not interfere with how NGOs accomplish their missions.  They are free to collaborate with foreign NGOs or foreign governments.  There are no broad regulations that restrict U.S. NGOs from attending conferences abroad, finding donors overseas or performing work internationally.

To establish an organization, most U.S. states have a general incorporation statute that makes the process routine – with no requirement for approval by the legislature or any official.  These statutes limit the possibility of government abuse of power.

To receive nonprofit status in the United States, an individual files a simple registration form on behalf of the organization.  Typically this involves a short description of the NGO’s mission, its name, and its address, and payment of a modest fee.  Individuals do not need to be U.S. citizens to form a new NGO.  This registration is not used to impose burdens on organizations or to penalize unregistered organizations – rather, it is the basis for special benefits to organizations that encourage their establishment.  Among other things, registration usually allows the organization to claim tax-exempt status.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) covers all “persons,” including any individual, corporation, and association that is an agent of a foreign principal, but provides a number of exemptions from registration.  These exemptions include persons whose activities are in “furtherance of bona fide religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits or of the fine arts.”  Unlike some other states’ repressive laws, FARA is not tied to foreign government funding, does not impose a tax, does not limit advocacy, and applies equally, regardless of the foreign country involved.  FARA provides transparency.

We are happy to provide more information on our system upon request.  I also encourage delegates to speak to civil society organizations from the United States that work here in Geneva.  We remain committed to maintaining the maximum amount of space and independence for civil society to operate.