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Introduction to Freedom of Association/NGOs

Background

For many years an immense number of non-governmental organizations have been operating in the OSCE region. These organizations are diverse in character: some are small and limited in scope while others are very substantial undertakings, with a wide-ranging focus; most are probably membership-based organizations but many operate without a membership even though they may have considerable support.
Whatever their character, non-governmental organizations are generally recognised as making not only an essential contribution to the development and realisation of democracy and human rights, particularly through the promotion of public awareness, participation in public life and securing the transparency and accountability of public authorities, but also to the cultural life and social well-being of democratic societies.
The contribution made by non-governmental organizations comes through an extremely wide range of activities. These include but are not limited to: acting as a vehicle for communication between different segments of society and public authorities; advocating changes in law and public policy; providing assistance to those in need; elaborating technical and professional standards; monitoring compliance with existing obligations under national and international law; providing a means of personal fulfilment and of pursuing, promoting and defending interests shared with others.

Key standards

The key standards established by universal and regional standards for non-governmental organizations are that they:

- are voluntary and self-governing
- are established to pursue the essentially non-profit-making objectives of their founders or members;
- are established by individual persons (natural or legal) and by groups of such persons;
- are membership or non-membership based;
- are informal or ones which have legal personality;
- are national or international in their composition and sphere of operation;
- are assured universally and regionally guaranteed rights and freedoms;
- are not subject to direction by public authorities;
- have the same capacities as are generally enjoyed by other legal persons where they have legal personality;
- are subject to the administrative, civil and criminal law obligations and sanctions generally applicable to legal persons where they have legal personality;
- benefit from a legal and fiscal framework that encourages their establishment and continued operation; and
- are able to challenge acts or omissions by public authorities affecting them in an independent and impartial court.

Terminology

The term 'non-governmental organizations' is not one used in most legal systems in the OSCE region and its use in universal and regional standards is intended to cover a very wide range of institutional forms within them. These forms will include, but are not limited to: associations, charities, foundations, non-profit corporations, societies and trusts. However, it is their actual nature rather than their formal designation that brings them within the scope of universal and regional standards. Thus the designation of a particular entity as “public” or “para-administrative” should not prevent it from being treated as a non-governmental organization provided that it is an accurate reflection of its essential characteristics.
Although political parties, professional and trade regulatory bodies and trade unions can be embraced by the term 'non-governmental organization', the standards specifically applicable to those entities are not covered by AssociatiOnline. Where material relating to them is included this is because it has for relevance to all non-governmental organizations.

Introduction to Freedom of Association/NGOs: an overview

This document is an overview of the key principles applicable to Freedom of Association and NGO legislation across the OSCE Region. It is an extract of AssociatiOnline, an interactive guide on Freedom of Association/NGOs realized by ODIHR.

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