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Last updated 20 February 2013
El Salvador’s first civil society organizations (CSOs) engaged in humanitarian aid work during the 1960s. However, the majority of CSOs in El Salvador formed and developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the country endured a civil war and period of post-war reconstruction. During that time many CSOs continued the work initiated in previous decades, but with heightened urgency to provide assistance to individuals who were marginalized from the economic and social system. The 1980s and 1990s also witnessed the emergence of new CSOs dealing with social welfare issues. With the end of the Civil War and the peace accords in 1992, CSOs continued to develop both quantitatively and qualitatively.
Over time CSOs developed mechanisms for international cooperation and financing and created unions, alliances and networks with other organizations, which are called federations, boards, offices and partnerships. They interact effectively in the public arena by formulating proposals for public policies, laws, and even agreements with state agencies.
The legal framework for CSOs is regulated by Article 7 of the Constitution ("The people of El Salvador have the right to freely associate and assemble peacefully without arms for any lawful purpose. [...]”) and more recently by the Law for Not-for-Profit Associations and Foundations (LAFSL). The LAFSL was enacted in 1996 and its regulations implement a special legal regime for social organizations, defining their rights and responsibilities and also creating a government office as a sanctioning body.
The arrival of the FMLN government in 2009 opened channels for citizen participation, but CSOs in El Salvador failed to unify around a national agenda for the country's development, and there is still no policy in place to promote social organizations. In addition, despite the flaws in the government entity that oversees CSOs— primarily related to the bureaucratic procedures that it imposes— little has been done to improve or replace it. This has resulted in insufficient mechanisms for organized participation in decision-making.
|Organizational Forms||National-level associations,
|Registration Body||Ministry of Interior||Municipality|
|Barriers to Entry||Vague grounds for denial,
excessive government discretion,
limited right to appeal,
excessive costs, delays in registration
|Delays in registration process|
|Barriers to Activities||None||None|
|Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy||None||None|
|Barriers to International Contact||None||None|
|Barriers to Resources||None||None|
|Population||6,071,774 (2011 est.)|
|Type of Government||Republic|
|Life Expectancy at Birth||Male: 59.78 years
Female: 62.25 years (2011 est.)
|Literacy Rate||Male: 70.16%
Female: 76.87% (2011 est.)
|Religious Groups||Roman Catholic 57.1%, Protestant 21.2 %, Jehovah's Witnesses 1.9%, Mormon 0.7%, other religions 2.3%, none 16.8% (2003 est.)|
|Ethnic Groups||Mestizo 90%, White 9%, Amerindian 1%|
|GDP per capita||$7,600 (2011 est.)|
Source: CIA World Factbook
|Ranking Body||Rank||Ranking Scale
(best – worst possible)
|UN Human Development Index||105 (2011)||1-182|
|World Bank Rule of Law Index||22.7 (2010)||100-0|
|World Bank Voice & Accountability Index||50.2 (2010)||100 – 0|
|Transparency International||80 (2011)||1-180|
|Freedom House: Freedom in the World||Status: Free
Political Rights: 2
Civil Liberties: 3
|Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
|Foreign Policy: Failed States Index
||Rank: 93 (2012)
International and Regional Human Rights Agreements
|Key International Agreements||Ratification*||Year|
|International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)||Yes||1979|
|Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1)||Yes||1995|
|International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)||Yes||1979|
|Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR)||No||--|
|International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)||Yes||1979|
|Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)||Yes||1981|
|Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women||No||--|
|Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)||Yes||1990|
|International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW)||Yes||2003|
|Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)||Yes||2007|
|Organization of American States (OAS)||Yes||1950|
|American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR)||Yes||1978|
* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty
El Salvador is a unitary state that follows the civil law tradition. The Constitution, as the supreme law of the land, regulates the rights and duties of all of the country’s inhabitants. It protects the rights to freedom of expression and thought, as well as the freedom of association.
Article 7 of the Constitution states that:
The inhabitants of El Salvador have the right to associate freely and to meet peacefully, without arms, for any lawful purpose. Nobody shall be obligated to belong to an association.
A person shall not be limited or impeded from the exercise of any licit activity because he does not belong to an association.
The existence of armed groups of a political, religious or guild character is prohibited.
According to Article 240(5) of the Constitution, municipalities may approve of the formation of community associations through the authority vested to them to enact local ordinances and regulations.
Secondary legislation regulates the scope of the rights articulated in the Constitution.
National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector
Two systems govern the establishment and operations of CSOs in El Salvador. The first system is the 1996 national-level Law for Not-for-Profit Associations and Foundations [Ley de Asociaciones y Fundaciones sin Fines de Lucro] (LAFSFL), which regulates the establishment, operation, and dissolution of CSOs.
The second system governs at the local level and is regulated through the Municipal Code and municipal ordinances issued by each of the country’s 262 municipalities. The goal of the local-level regulation is to promote effective CSO engagement at the local level to address public policy priorities. According to Article 118 of Title IX of the Municipal Code, “Municipal governments are obligated to promote citizen participation, provide public information on municipal management, address matters that residents may request, and those that the Council considers convenient.”
Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives
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The Law for Not-for-Profit Associations and Foundations (LAFSFL) addresses two categories of CSOs (Article 1), which may be domestic or foreign (Article 44). The first category of CSOs is the association, a private legal entity formed by two or more natural or legal persons for the ongoing pursuit of any legal not-for-profit activity (Articles 9 and 11). These entities are formally established by means of a public deed from the founding members and are governed by internal by-laws. Their members may be natural or legal persons, whether national or foreign, although the latter must reside in the country (Article 12). The statutes of the association establish the rights and obligations of members within the organization and conditions of membership (Article 14).
Under the LAFSFL, federations and confederations, which are made up of legal persons, are also recognized associations (Article 17). As of 2011, the Ministry of Interior reports 15 registered federations and confederations.
The second category of CSOs under the LAFSFL is the foundation, which is established by one or more natural or legal persons for the administration of capital intended for purposes of public service (Article 18). A foundation is a non-membership organization, which may be established by nationals or foreigners. An endowment and operating funds are required at the time of establishment (Article 22). The establishment of a foundation is formally recognized in a public instrument or will (Article 19). Foundations are governed by their internal by-laws (Article 23).
For both associations and foundations, legal personality is obtained by registering with the Ministry of Interior (Article 26).
The Municipal Code (MC) provides two additional categories of CSOs at the local level: municipal associations and community associations. Municipal associations are attached to the municipalities that create them (MC, Article 12). Legal personality is conferred by the municipality in the articles of incorporation.
The community association is formed by local residents who come together to address their common needs (MC, Article 118). Community associations must have at least 25 members (MC, Article 120). A decision by a special general assembly is required for their establishment and the relevant municipal council confers legal personality on the association (MC, Article 119).
Churches do not fall under the application of the LAFSFL (LAFSFL, Article 10), but instead are governed by Title 30 of the Civil Code. Trade unions are regulated under the Labor Code. Neither churches nor trade unions will be examined in the remainder of this report.
Public Benefit Status
Subject to prior certification by the General Directorate of Internal Taxes under the Ministry of the Treasury, associations and foundations can be declared as public interest entities, and therefore be exempt from paying income taxes. This benefit, which virtually all CSOs request, is regulated by the LAFSFL (Articles 6 and 7) and the Income Tax Law (Article 6). The requirements for obtaining public benefit status are set out in the Income Tax Law (Article 7). CSOs established for the purposes of social assistance, the promotion of road construction, charity, education and instruction, and cultural, scientific, literary, artistic, political and sports activities, as well as trade associations and unions, are eligible to receive the certification, as long as their income and assets are used solely to fulfill the institution’s purpose and are not distributed among members (Income Tax Law, Article 6). In practice, however, the process of obtaining this status is lengthy and bureaucratic. Furthermore, a designation as a public interest entity does not exempt the CSO from complying with other formal obligations, such as the submission of reports and other documentation requested by the tax authority.
The authorization for public interest status is granted for one year and may be renewed automatically absent a notice of revocation from the tax authority. The public interest designation may be revoked at any time if the grounds on which it was granted cease to exist (LAFSFL, Article 7). Neither the LAFSFL nor the tax laws outline a specific procedure for revocation of eligibility and there are no known cases of revocation.
Barriers to Entry
Vague Grounds for Denial: Under the LAFSL, the Registry of Not-for-Profit Associations and Foundations (RAF) has the power to deny registration if a CSO’s objectives are contrary to “public order, morals, and good customs.” Such vague terminology invites the exercise of subjective governmental discretion and the RAF is able to impede or delay the establishment and registration of CSOs because those terms have never been clarified. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice has, however, ruled unconstitutional the RAF’s refusal to register an association that advocates for the rights of transvestite homosexuals on the grounds that its purposes were contrary to morals and good conduct.
RAF Exceeding its Authority: The RAF exceeds its authority when it processes CSO registration requests by conducting subjective assessments on all applications in coordination with the line ministry or other public entity responsible for the field of activities of the CSO in question. Moreover, the RAF empowers the ministry or public entity to raise objections to the CSO’s by-laws or other founding documents, and to insist that the CSO modify those documents. While the RAF will not compel changes to the substance of the by-laws, it does make recommendations on the form and style of the documents, which can be burdensome on applicants. The Registry may, for instance, demand further information if the aims set out in the CSO’s by-laws are too general or lack specificity and may require information relating to the origin, allocation, and use of funds for the projects to be implemented. The establishment of requirements beyond those provided in the law is arbitrary and creates a situation of legal uncertainty.
Ministry of Interior as Final Arbiter: In cases of outright refusal of registration, Article 51 of the LAFSFL provides the right to an administrative appeal. Within three business days of the notification of refusal, the applicant may file a petition for review to the Ministry of Interior, which must decide on the petition within fifteen working days. The Ministry’s decision is final.
Excessive Costs. There are a number of expenses associated with the registration of a CSO. First, the LAFSFL sets a fixed registration fee of approximately $35 (LAFSFL, Article 69). In addition, a CSO must pay for the following: a notary public who writes the CSO’s constitution for between $300 to $600 (although sometimes this is done for free); an auditor who certifies the CSO’s initial balance, which costs $30; the publication of the CSO’s articles of incorporation in the Official Journal with the price determined by the number of items contained (30 items cost approximately $85); and the order or decree that grants legal personality, which costs on average $30. Altogether, establishing a CSO may cost between $500 and $800.
Non-adherence to Time Limits. At the time of registration, a written request to be entered into the Registry is submitted for the consideration of the Directorate General of the RAF. It must be accompanied by three copies of the public instrument recording the articles of incorporation and by-laws, the election of the first board of directors or governing board, and other documentation (LAFSFL, Article 65). Should the Registry find that the request contains information that is inadequate, incomplete, formally flawed or in violation of the law, it must notify the organization no more than 90 working days from the date the documentation was received, specifying the errors or violations, and advising the organization to correct them. However, this time period is not always adhered to in practice.
Delayed Registration at Municipal Level. The Municipal Council must issue a decision approving or rejecting the registration of a community association no later than 15 days following submission of the request. The Council shall verify that the by-laws submitted include the provisions required by the Municipal Code and that they do not contravene any law or ordinance. In case of an objection, the applicant will be notified and will be given a period of 15 days from the date of the notification in which to correct it. Once any objections have been addressed, the Council must issue a decision within 15 days from the date of the new request. Should the Council fail to issue a decision within the 15-day time frame, the association’s legal personality will be automatically recognized, as mandated by law, with its by-laws approved and registered accordingly. The Council will be obligated to enter the association’s registration and immediately order the publication of the approval and the by-laws in the Official Gazette. This compulsory registration is not always observed, however, and some municipalities delay registration. In practice, the registration of community associations with the municipality is less than systematic or standardized.
Barriers to Operational Activity
The law does not prohibit unregistered groups from forming and operating; they must only have legal aims. The Criminal Code provides penalties for associations established for the pursuit of an illicit aim.
Barriers to Speech / Advocacy
CSOs are free to criticize the government and advocate for causes that differ from the government’s views. Restrictions on freedom of expression relate to the crimes of defamation, injury and slander, which safeguard other basic rights.
The government created the Economic and Social Council, an advisory body under the Executive Branch made up of key sectors of Salvadoran society such as entrepreneurs, social movements, governments, and academia (universities and think-tanks). This Council examines issues of national relevance such as public security, transparency, the fiscal pact, and social development. According to some observers, while the Council has created opportunities for dialogue on key public policy issues, the process for selecting participants has not been informed by transparent criteria, which has led to criticism of its representativeness. As for the selection of CSOs to the Council, there is no generally established legal procedure and in large measure the decision is left to the discretion of government officials.
Barriers to International Contact
The LAFSL governs the registration and incorporation of foreign CSOs and grants them the same rights as Salvadoran CSOs (Article 44). The operations of foreign entities are approved as long as their purposes are lawful, but they are explicitly prohibited from participating in political activities (LAFSFL, Articles 44 and 47). “Political activities” is not defined in the LAFSL.
Barriers to Resources
CSOs may participate in any legal activity, whether commercial or economic, related to their purposes or aims. The only limitation is that the funds obtained must be used for the institution itself and not the direct enrichment of its members, founders, and administrators (LAFSFL, Article 9). There are no special rules restricting the ability of CSOs to obtain and manage foreign funds.
The law does not establish explicit criteria for certifying public interest status, although it can be inferred that the process includes an examination of the supporting documentation provided with the request. Nonetheless, the law does not specify the criteria that the tax authority will use to certify that any such requirements have been met. This ambiguity leaves room for arbitrary interpretation. The regulations provide no procedure or administrative remedy if a request for certification as a public interest entity is denied, which leaves no other option than protracted and costly legal processes.
|UN Universal Periodic Review Reports||7th Session 2010|
|Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs|
|USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes||
|U.S. State Department|
|Failed States Index Reports||Foreign Policy: Failed States Index 2012|
|IMF Country Reports||El Salvador and the IMF|
|International Commission of Jurists||Not available|
|International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library|
While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change. If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at firstname.lastname@example.org.
El Salvador one of only ten states to have ratified the Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (January 2013)
People who have their economic, social and cultural rights routinely trampled on are set to gain a fresh route to justice via the UN - but once in force it will only immediately apply to citizens of 10 nations. The new complaints mechanism, established by the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights (the Protocol), will allow individuals and groups to seek justice from the UN if their rights - including adequate housing, food, water, sanitation, health, work, social security and education - are violated and their government fails to provide justice. The ten states that have ratified so far are Argentina, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mongolia, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Uruguay.
Dr. Tillemann travels to Peru and El Salvador (October 2012)
On October 18, Dr. Tomicah Tillemann, Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies, traveled to San Salvador, El Salvador to meet with government and civil society leaders in preparation for El Salvador’s upcoming presidency of the Community of Democracies (CD). The Community of Democracies is an intergovernmental organization of democracies and democratizing countries established in 2000 with a stated commitment to strengthening and deepening democratic norms and practices worldwide.
CSOs petition to halt REDD program (August 2012)
Civil society organizations are asking the World Bank to reject the Salvadoran government’s proposal to join a program for reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to deforestation on the argument that it will actually harm the environment. They argue that, beyond the praiseworthy aim of preserving forests in developing countries, the mechanism does nothing to enforce reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by the industrialised countries that are the prime causes of the pollution. According to the UN-REDD program’s website, it is “an effort to create financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development.
Civil society speaks out on constitutional crisis (July 2012)
Civil society in El Salvador has been critical of the National Assembly and its refusal to acknowledge the rulings of the Constitutional Chamber. Currently there is a dispute about who has the last word when there is a constitutional issue. El Salvador's Constitution appears to give that power specifically to the Constitutional Chamber, but the National Assembly has refused to accept this interpretation. As a result, there are now two sets of judges in the country each claiming to be the Supreme Court.
Trade unionists denounce persecution in El Salvador (June 2012)
Persecution of trade unionists remains a problem in El Salvador, in spite of the fact that the country is governed by a left-wing party that advocates labour rights, union leaders say.
Progress can prevail in El Salvador (May 2012)
El Salvador is suffering under extraordinary levels of violence fueled by economic desperation, arms supply, organized crime, gang violence, state sponsored violence, banditry, and domestic violence. The companion paper Violence and Poverty Entangled in El Salvador describes these in detail. This paper sets out to suggest simple outlines of solutions, applaud positive developments, and bring models of success from other international development frontiers.
Legislative blunders and expectations in El Salvador (May 2012)
El Salvador has undergone various political events in the past couple of months. Political drama and institutional bickering have been present in daily news. For one, the legislative and municipal elections that took place this past March were fair and clean, while the same cannot be said about other countries in the region—namely Nicaragua. The outcome of El Salvador’s election results was bleak for the ruling Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí Liberation Front, or FMLN) party; FMLN’s largest loss was in the country’s most populous and important municipalities.
The foregoing information was collected by the ICNL NGO Law Monitor partner organization in El Salvador.