Draft Amendments to Public Benefit Law Under Discussion

Association

A draft bill proposing amendments to the law on public benefit organisations is being discussed by the government. According to Civic Alliance Latvia (CAL), the goal of the amendments is to improve processes related to gaining public benefit status and the cooperation between public benefit organisations and the Latvian tax administration. However, the drafting process and the text of the proposed amdments present some challenges. 

Despite CSOs having asked to be involved before draft amendments were put forward, a first draft was already brought forward by the government for consideration by the joint government-civil society body. There are also problems with the content. The draft legislation grants increased power to the tax service to request additional information from public benefit organisations, thus increasing the bureaucratic burden on them. Further, according to an explanation from a government minister during a meeting with civil society, public benefit status would only be granted to "non-professional organisations", in other words organisations who do not have employees receiving remuneration for their work. While the Ministry of Finance withdrew this proposal after harsh criticism from civil society, according to CAL the amendments did not address fundamental issues for civil society and the issue of civic dialogue was missing.

Government-civil society relations improve ahead of elections

In other developments during the months of June and July, civil society witnessed a slight improvement in its relations with the government and leading political parties. Iveta Kazoka, director of the Centre for Public Policy Providus told the European Civic Forum that 

“the threatening statements on civil society and democracy have stopped amidst the electoral campaign”. 

Parliamentary elections are due to be held in Latvia in early October 2018. Organisations interviewed for this update reported that political parties have been very careful ahead of the elections. For example, Inese Vaivare, director of the NGO for development Lapas said that, at the moment, most parties show openness to meeting civil society and debating pressing issues.

The Prime Minister also opened up to dialogue with civil society and recently met with Civic Alliance Latvia (CAL), the national platform of NGOs, after months of requests to do so. Moreover, a working group with policy-makers and civil society representatives was formed to reform the Memorandum Council. The Memorandum Council is the "main co-operation platform between government and NGOs in Latvia". It is meant to meet once a month to assess stakeholder engagement with line ministries, review NGO participation in the drafting of laws and address issues raised by NGOs on problems in certain sectors. While a commitment to reform the Memorandum Council is a positive step forward, criticism persists as the working group is mostly focusing on very technical aspects while, according to civil society involved in the process, there are deeper cultural issues linked to the lack of civic education and engagement.

Peaceful Assembly

Baltic Pride

On 9th June, over 8,000 people took part in the Baltic Pride event in Riga. While the march was peaceful overall, at one point eggs were thrown at participants by unidentified individuals. 

In related earlier developments, Annija Emersone, user community manager for ManaBalss.lv, a platform collecting citizens’ petitions, reported that between December 2017 and January 2018 two initiatives were presented on the platform to prevent the Baltic Pride, but the platform decided not to host them as they violated the platforms rules.

Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights

On 21 June, about 100 people gathered in front of the Saeima (Latvia's parliament) to demand the withdrawal of amendments to the Sexual and Reproductive Health Act, which provide for stricter regulations on egg donation, including banning women who have not borne children from donating eggs. Opponents of the law initiated a petition on the Manabalss portal, calling for Latvia to allow women the freedom to make decisions about their own bodies. The initiative's organisors said:

"We will not allow the Saeima to deprive women of the right to decide on their own body and reproductive health. They should be allowed to decide on themselves when to give birth, and when to donate their eggs! We ask the Saeima not to accept the amendments to the Sexual and Reproductive Health Act proposed by the Minister of Health, G.Belēviča (ZZS), limiting the rights of women to donate their eggs, in the future only giving birth to those women who have just given birth (translated from Latvia)."

The mobilisation was successful and the parliament voted against the controversial amendments and retained the status quo, which provides that healthy individuals - men aged 18 to 45 and women aged 18 to 35 years - are eligible to be germ cell donors.