The Mongolian parliament’s fall legislative agenda includes debate of a proposed draft law on nonprofit legal entities. The draft law shares provisions used in recent laws to restrict civil society in Russia, Poland and Hungary.

The proposed legislation calls for the creation of the Civil Society Development Council, an institution that will have vast power over nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Mongolia, including foreign-funded institutions, and require NGOs to submit annual reports detailing all of their financial contributions and activities for approval. Exactly how the council will use this information to determine the legitimacy of NGO activities remains unclear. This uncertainty could potentially leave Mongolia’s civil society open to arbitrary and restrictive provisions.

A landlocked country surrounded by China and Russia, Mongolia surprised scholars with its rapid transition to democracy after 1990. Political scientists M. Steven Fish and Michael Seeberg credit the “secret supports” of Mongolia’s civil society — the country has a strong culture of NGOs that advocate for human rights, check government corruption, and promote transparency and oversight of the country’s vast natural resources.

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Will the new law mean new threats to Mongolia’s democracy? Here’s what you need to know.

1. The broad focus on “national unity” could threaten civil society

Article 14.2 of the draft law prohibits any “organization or person that is conducting activities against national unity or that promotes money laundering or extremism.” Article 14.3 makes provisions for police and intelligence officers to investigate an NGO’s donors to determine their suitability.

These types of restrictions could become a justification for the government to curtail funding or revoke an NGO’s license to operate. For instance, human rights groups advocating for the equality of Mongolia’s LGBTQ population, women and minority ethnic groups might find their activities barred under such a law. Russia has used a similar law to repeatedly deny registration status for LGBTQ rights groups, saying that their work amounts to “extremist activities” that “undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation by decreasing its population.”

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The draft law also could inhibit the work of any organization critical of the Mongolian government, which could affect anti-corruption measures. Mongolia, with a wealth of mineral resources, has seen large influxes of foreign capital — and high levels of corruption. This year, civil society fought to hold the government accountable after journalists revealed that 14 members of parliament, two ministers, one vice minister and 33 other high-level officials had embezzled millions of dollars from a fund intended to finance the development of the country’s small businesses.

A 2016 report by the Independent Research Institute of Mongolia reveals that NGOs focused on democracy, good governance and human rights make up 20.3 percent of the country’s registered NGOs. The draft law would incorporate tax benefits and government support for organizations that it deems act in “support the public good.” This could steer NGOs to alter their activities to receive government benefits — and suggests there will be greater government involvement in NGO activities.

Although civil society groups generally see the draft law as problematic, they acknowledge the need to upgrade Mongolia’s civil society framework. The country has 21,040 registered NGOs for a population of only 3 million — but only about 8,500 are active. Craig Castagna, the resident program director for the International Republican Institute, an international democracy-promotion NGO active in Mongolia since 1992, told me: “There is widespread agreement amongst stakeholders that Mongolia’s laws and regulations concerning NGOs need to be updated and streamlined, but not at the expense of restricting fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression.”

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2. The law could halt critical foreign funding

The draft law also calls into question to what extent Mongolian NGOs will be able to receive support from foreign funders. Mongolian civil society is robust, but a struggling economy and a fledgling culture of philanthropy leaves many NGOs dependent on international donors to finance their operations. For example, the Gender Equality Center, an organization that does critical work in repatriating and rehabilitating Mongolian survivors of human trafficking, receives approximately 90 percent of its funding from foreign donors.

At the July 2018 Democracy in the 21st Century conference, held in Ulaanbaatar, Deputy Minister of Justice B. Enkhbayar laid out the justification for the new law, alleging that foreign funding of NGOs can lead to terrorism. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, an international coalition of human rights NGOs, found that governments often use fear of terrorism and money laundering — two terms that appear frequently in the Mongolian draft law — to target and silence NGOs engaged in the promotion and protection of civil and political rights.

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3. Mongolia’s government also clamped down on the judiciary

In March, President Khaltmaagiin Battulga, in cooperation with Mongolia’s parliament, began to limit the independence of the judiciary and anti-corruption authority, citing the institutions’ use of torture to obtain confessions. A Bloomberg News profile called Battulga a “Genghis Khan-Idolizing Trump of the Steppe,” describing his successful effort to fast-track legislation that gave him the power to fire judges. The move sparked outrage among civil society groups, but they have been unable to reverse the government’s decision.

This fall, Mongolia’s Democracy Education Center has hosted public discussions to broaden awareness of how the draft law may damage the country’s democracy. These efforts may prove futile, given the strong government support for the measure. The Mongolian parliament may also be powerless to stop the pending legislation: The 14 parliamentarians implicated in this year’s embezzlement scandal remain in office, clinging to their parliamentary immunity from prosecution to avoid jail time.

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With the president in control of Mongolia’s judiciary and anti-corruption authority, the threat of selective enforcement seems likely to encourage implicated parliamentarians to vote in line with the president’s preference. The big question now for many in Mongolia is whether civil society groups can delay a vote on the draft law until after the election of a new 76-member parliament, which is scheduled for June 2020.

Aubrey Menarndt (@AubreyMenarndt) is a Smith College and University of Oxford graduate who consults on democracy and governance issues throughout the world. She is the author of “Young Mongols: Forging Democracy in the Wild, Wild East” (Penguin Random House SEA, forthcoming 2020).

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