NGO Monitor turns to EU court for transparency

J'lem watchdog filed suit against European Commission, demanding it disclose funding documents.

gerald steinberg 88 (photo credit: )
gerald steinberg 88
(photo credit: )

NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based watchdog organization, announced onWednesday it has filed suit against the European Commission of theEuropean Union, demanding that it meet its own transparencyrequirements and disclose internal documents revealing thedecision-making process and criteria for funding Israeli andPalestinian nongovernment organizations.

Gerald Steinberg, the president of NGO Monitor, said at a pressconference in Jerusalem that the EU has contributed at least NIS 177million since June 2005 to about 150 Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, mostof which he said demonized and delegitimized Israel.

The application to the EU Court of Justice was filed by theAsserson Law Office, an international law firm providing English legalservices from Jerusalem.

Steinberg, who is a British citizen, said he was applying tothe court on the basis of a European Commission regulation which statesthat "in the event of a total or partial refusal to grant access todocuments, the applicant may institute court proceedings against theinstitution."

On October 23, 2008, Steinberg asked the EC for the transcriptsof meetings relating to the funding decisions for grants to Israeli andPalestinian NGOs for the past three years under the PfP (thePartnership for Peace) and EIDHR (European Instrument for Democracy andHuman Rights) programs. He also asked for other reports and documents.

It took six months for the EC to respond to the request, buteven then it only sent a small number of documents and only afterwhiting out substantial parts of their contents, charged Steinberg.

The EC told Steinberg it could not provide more informationbecause disclosure would undermine public security and also damageprivacy and commercial interests.

Attorney Trevor Asserson said none of these were applicable to Steinberg's request.

"The EC is throwing up a cloud of obfuscation," he charged.

Steinberg alleged that of the roughly 70 Israeli NGOs thatreceive funding from the EC, three-quarters demonize and delegitimizeIsrael. These, he charged, included B'Tselem, Hamoked Center for theDefense of the Individual, Yesh Din, Ir Amim, Bimkom, The PublicCommittee against Torture in Israel, Adalah, The Israel Committeeagainst House Demolitions, Gisha, The Association for Civil Rights inIsrael, Peace Now, Mossawa, Breaking the Silence, Machsom Watch and TheCenter for Alternative Information.

Steinberg added that he regarded all organizations calling fora boycott, divestment or sanctions against Israel as being anti-Israelipolitical organizations.

In response to Steinberg's charges, David Kriss, EU press andinformation manager, made the following statement: "In line with the EUregulations on transparency, the European Commission has provided Prof.Steinberg with comprehensive information on the funding of projects inIsrael and in the region. The extensive information at Prof.Steinberg's disposal is proof of this. However, in accordance withEuropean law, any EU citizen is entitled to launch an appeal against adecision of the Commission.

"...NGOs whose projects are supported by the EuropeanCommission need to be fully compliant with Commission rules andprocedures and, in general, operate in a way which is fully consistentwith the democratic values of the EU. This does not imply that EUpolicy has to be systematically reflected in all their statements,seminars or publications. In fact the Commission requires all projectpublications to carry a disclaimer stating clearly that the contents ofa particular document can under no circumstances be regarded asreflecting the position of the European Union. Moreover, the EU fullysupports diversity of opinion and the right of expression as long asthis is in line with its fundamental democratic principles. Informationon funding is readily available on Commission Web sites."