On 9 November, following President Nayib Bukele’s orders, the Minister of Interior and Territorial Development presented the proposed “Foreign Agents Law” to the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador. The National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders of El Salvador and IM-Defensoras are concerned that approving this proposed law would pose a serious threat to the free exercise of the right to defend human rights, since it includes directives seeking to control, inspect, and, where applicable, criminalize human rights organizations and social movements working in the country.
This proposal, whose content is generally ambiguous and vague, defines “foreign agents” as “individual and legal persons, national or foreign, whose activities in El Salvador respond to the interests of, or are directly or indirectly funded by, a foreign principal.” These persons will need to register with a Foreign Agents Registry – an entity that will have the power to determine the requirements for registration; approve or deny a registration; as well as to request information on, conduct oversight, and inspect all foreign agents’ activities, among other powers.
Additionally, every transaction that entities deemed as “foreign agents” make using funds received from outside the country would be subject to a 40% tax. In terms of penalties, those who fail to comply with the provisions of the proposed law could be fined up to US$10,000, and their legal status could be revoked. The proposed law creates new financial controls with the stated objective of supervising illicit financing; however, these are unjustified since the “Law against Laundering of Money and Other Assets” (Decree 498) already exists for this purpose.
As recently highlighted by more than 60 human rights organizations, the proposed law would be approved in a context of evident consolidation of authoritarian rule, constant attacks on the separation of powers, and accumulation of power by the President and his New Ideas party. Also part of the current context are escalating smear campaigns and other attacks on human rights defenders and independent media, including the systematic use of hate speech against feminist defenders, organizations, and collectives.
Additionally, we have witnessed direct accusations by members of the Legislature against organizations, with implicit threats that from now on “they will find themselves forced to be transparent”, as well as statements by President Nayib Bukele alleging that there journalists who are foreign agents because they criticize the proposed law. Given that the ruling party currently holds a qualified majority in the Legislative Assembly and that the approval of the Law is imminent, it can be inferred that the purpose of this regulation is to control the work of human rights organizations and social movements.
The events described above are part of a regional trend that seeks to hinder the work of human rights organizations and social movements through administrative measures that lead to criminalization processes or effectively force organizations to cease operations. Such is the case in Guatemala, with the enactment of the NGO Law, or in Nicaragua, with last year’s approval of a Foreign Agents Law, which was similar in content and was used to compel organizations to desist from continuing with their activities.
It is crucial to reiterate that the defense of human rights and the freedom of expression and association cannot be considered meddling or acting against national sovereignty. For this reason, the National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders of El Salvador and IM-Defensoras urge the Legislative Assembly to act in accordance with international human rights standards and refrain from approving this proposed legislation that will only further deepen the risks faced by people who dare to speak out and demand accountability.
Finally, we call on the international community to remain vigilant, to denounce this clear threat to women human rights defenders in El Salvador, and to activate the mechanisms at their disposal to prevent the approval of this proposed law.