Flag of PanamaNGO Law Monitor: Panama

Introduction | At a Glance | Key Indicators | International Rankings
Legal Snapshot | Legal Analysis | Reports | News and Additional Resources
Last updated 7 September 2014

Introduction

Panamanian civil society plays a significant role in several areas of national life, including the environment, judicial reform, human rights, transparency and government oversight, and the preservation of ethnic identity. The country’s civil society organizations (CSOs) are gradually expanding their participation in other matters of public interest.

Civil society developed more slowly in Panama than in other countries in the region because it was primarily comprised of members from the country’s upper economic class who were closely connected to the political elite.  The majority of Panama’s populace was not able to counter the small but powerful elite and strategically organize around any particular issue for any length of time.  Instead, civic organization emerged only in response to very specific and limited issues, such as housing costs, canal operations and treaties, and the privatization of state-run services.

During the decade following the United States’ removal of General Manuel Noriega from power in 1989, however, there was an enormous influx of international governmental and non-governmental aid flowing into Panama.  Panama’s political leaders were aware of the benefits of CSOs in the development of the country and of their contributions to the national economy.  Thus, civil society’s influence has surged since the end of dictatorial rule and the institution of democracy in the 1990s.

At the same time, however, members of civil society believe more progress is needed in Panama. In order to better protect the democratic system in the country, CSOs must strengthen their networks and alliances and promote legal reforms conducive to a more participatory democracy.

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At a Glance

Organizational Forms Religious associations; public interest associations; not-for-profit private interest associations; private interest foundations
Registration Body Legal Directorate of the Ministry of Government (MINGOB)
Barriers to Entry Excessive government discretion; burdensome registration procedures; high costs of registration
Barriers to Activities Excessive government discretion regarding revocation of legal status; burdensome obligations relating to website maintenance
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy No legal barriers
Barriers to International Contact Foreigners cannot be members of the governing board of a CSO.
Barriers to Resources No legal barriers.
Barriers to Assembly 24-hour advance notification requirement; spontaneous assemblies not allowed; failure to provide sufficient protection to organizers and participants in assemblies.

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Key Indicators

Population 3,913,275 (2014)
Capital Panama City
Type of Government Constitutional Democracy
Life Expectancy at Birth Male: 75.18 years
Female: 80.86 years (2012)
Literacy Rate

Male: 74.57 (2014)
Female: 80.68 (2014)

Religious Groups Roman Catholic 85%, Protestant 15%
Ethnic Groups Mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 70%, Amerindian and mixed (West Indian) 14%, white 10%, Amerindian 6%
GDP per capita $9,489 (2014)

Source: CIA World Factbook

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International Rankings

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale 
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 59 (2013) 1 – 182
World Bank Rule of Law Index 49 (2012) 100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index 63 (2012) 100 – 0
Transparency International 73 (2013) 1 – 180
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Free
Political Rights Score: 1
Civil Liberties Score: 2 (2013)
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index
131 (2014) 177 – 1

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Legal Snapshot

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International Agreements Ratification* Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Yes 1977
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1) Yes 1977
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Yes 1977
Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR) No --
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) Yes 1977
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 Yes 2001
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) No --
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Yes 2007
Regional Treaties    
American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) Yes 1991
Organization of American States (OAS) Yes 1948

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Constitutional Framework

The Constitution of the Republic of Panama establishes in Article 39 a fundamental guarantee of the right of association:

“It is permitted to form companies, associations and foundations that are not contrary to morality or law. They may obtain recognition as legal persons…”     

The Constitution also recognizes freedom of thought and expression in Article 37:

Every person may freely express his opinion orally, in writing or by any other means, without prior censorship, but there are legal responsibilities when by any of these means one affects the reputation or honor of individuals or the social security or public order…”

Finally, the Constitution recognizes the right to peaceful assembly in Article 38:

“The people of the Republic have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms for lawful purposes. Protests or outdoor meetings are not subject to permit and to perform them one is only required to notify the local administrative authority in advance of twenty-four hours…”

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

The national laws and regulations governing civil society organizations (CSOs) include the following:

  • Articles 64-75 of the Civil Code define the concept and categories of legal personality. Articles 4-5 of the Civil Code define public interest and private interest associations.

  • Article 170 of the Penal Code of 2007 on Crimes Against Freedom of Assembly and Press has been used to justify police repression of public gathering and meetings.
  • Executive Decree 170 of 1993 provides the income tax exemption for CSOs According to Article 13 of the Decree, income obtained by CSOs is tax exempt as long as it is used exclusively for purposes of social assistance, public charity, education or sports.
  • Executive Decree 524 of 2005 established new requirements for the granting of legal personality by the Ministry of Government and created a Registry of CSOs under the Ministry of Government.
  • Executive Decree 627 of December 2006 amended Article 11 of Executive Decree 524 on the Registry of CSOs. Under the Decree, private interest foundations formed pursuant to Law 25 of June 1995 may also register with the Ministry of Government as long as they are established for strictly social purposes and affiliated with the City of Knowledge, a private foundation with public sector participation that provides training and promotes the advancement of science and culture in the country.
  • Law 25 of June 1995 regulates private interest foundation requiring that they have a founding charter and assets that are intended specifically for pursuing their previously set objectives.
  • Law 33 of June 2010, an amendment to the tax code, regulates the matter of double taxation with countries with which Panama has signed free trade agreements. This law includes an article that establishes the obligation for CSOs to create a webpage where they must publicly list all of their donors.
  • Executive Decree 600 of 2005 defines public interest associations as associations linked to public institutions. The state does not consider them civil society actors, although the state does not manage their implementation.
  • Resolutions 201-1183 and 201-2788 of 2008 of the General Directorate of Income [Dirección General de Ingresos] under the Ministry of the Economy and Finance must be complied with in order for CSOs to receive public benefit status.

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

Please help keep us informed; if you are aware of pending initiatives, write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

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Legal Analysis

Organizational Forms

Under the Civil Code, there are four civil society organizational forms: (1) religious associations; (2) public interest associations as defined in Executive Decree 600 of 2005; (3) not-for-profit private interest associations as recognized by Executive Decree 524 of 2005; and (4) private interest foundations regulated by Law 25 of 1995.

According to Article 36 of the Constitution, “Religious organizations have legal capacity and manage and administer their property within the limits prescribed by law, as well as other legal persons."  

Public interest associations as defined in Executive Decree 600 of 2005 are associations made up of public institutions and other entities recognized by the state. They are linked to government services; indeed, the state does not consider them civil society actors. However, the state does not manage their implementation.

Not-for-profit private interest associations as recognized by Executive Decree 524 of 2005 are privately funded and administered by non-governmental or non-public entities. Their aims relate to the defense of rights or to improving the moral or intellectual conditions of their members or society as a whole.

Private interest foundations are regulated by Law 25 of 1995, which requires that they have a founding charter and assets intended specifically for their objectives. Executive Decree 627 of 2006 provides for recognition of the legal personality of private interest foundations established under Law 25 of 1995, as long as they have (1) strictly social purposes as stipulated in their articles of incorporation; and (2) proof of affiliation with the City of Knowledge, a private foundation with public sector participation that provides training and promotes the advancement of science and culture in the country.

Public Benefit Status

Under Panamanian law, CSOs may be authorized by the Directorate General of Income of the Ministry of Economy and Finance to receive tax-deductible donations. The request for authorization for public benefit status must include a notarized power of attorney; the grounds for the request; a list of the organization’s members; its domicile; a schedule of meetings; an original and current certification from the Public Registry verifying the organization’s existence; an authenticated copy of the Ministry of Government (MINGOB) resolution recognizing its activities as charitable or educational and not-for-profit; a copy of the articles of incorporation and by-laws; a five-year work plan; and proof of continuous activities to the benefit of the community for at least the previous 12 months. The organization must also submit written materials on the progress of its plans and programs; agree to on-site inspections of its facilities, works and projects; and comply with the regulations set out in Resolution 201-1183 of 2008.

Barriers to Entry

The following barriers to entry exist:

  • Discretion in processing applications for legal personality: Not-for-profit private interest associations applying for registration must submit the required documentation to the Legal Directorate of the MINGOB, which then verifies that the documents are compliant with the requirements set in Executive Decree 524 of 2005. Some officials designated by the MINGOB to process applications report that they reject as many as 99% of applications for being technically deficient the first time they are submitted, even though by law the applications must be submitted by a lawyer.
  • Burdensome documentation requirements: As part of the documentation required for registration, Article 2 of Executive Decree 524 of 2005 requires that not-for-profit private interest associations provide a “work plan” which includes the objectives and main activities that they will develop within their first five years of existence. In addition to the requirements related to soliciting an attorney, articles of incorporation, by-laws, approval of the charter and other documents, this “work plan” is considered to be unnecessary—and premature—for not-for-profit private interest associations in the early stages of their formation. CSO members believe that simplified procedures would make registration more available to the common citizen and expedite the registration process. Currently, the review and approval process for all of this documentation can take as long as three months to one year.
  • Burdensome domicile requirements: Article 10 of Executive Decree 524 of 2005 requires not-for-profit private interest associations to maintain owned or rented premises to serve as their domicile. The premises must be where the meetings and the activities undertaken to fulfill the organization’s objectives take place. However, many organizations lack resources to maintain premises, whether owned or leased.
  • High costs of the application: The costs of the registration process, not including attorney's fees, can range from 300-500 US dollars in registration fees, which is often unaffordable for groups and associations with limited resources. In addition to the notary fees and stamp duties for all organizations, the centralized registration system, whereby all organizations must file applications at the headquarters of the MINGOB in Panama City, triggers extra costs for organizations based outside of the capital.

Barriers to Operational Activity

The following barriers to operational activity exist:

  • Discretion in revoking legal status. Rules relating to the revocation of legal status are not addressed by laws, but rather legal regulations such as executive orders, which allow for a greater degree of discretion. Article 15 of Executive Decree 524 of 2005, for example, prohibits not-for-profit private interest associations from carrying out activities that are illegal or against morals or good customs, and sets forth a vague procedure for revoking legal status.  In addition, the MINGOB may revoke legal personality if it determines that the activities of the CSO are contrary to those laid down in the statutes of the organization; even the mere receipt of information alleging illegal activities or activities contrary to a CSO’s statute is sufficient to dissolve a CSO.  While there is no record of the government relying on this provision to dissolve a CSO, the Decree opens the possibility that if a CSO engages in lawful activities that are not covered in its statute, its legal status may be revoked.  Moreover, the Decree does not establish basic safeguards against the possibility of a revocation.
  • Burdensome obligations. Law 33 of June 30, 2010, which amended Article 34 of Law 50 of 2003, provides measures to prevent the use of funds for money laundering, drug trafficking and terrorism.  Specifically, the law requires a CSO to maintain monthly updates on a website, including information on all of its donors.  To maintain a website may not be feasible economically or technically for some CSOs.        
  • No single registry of CSOs. There is no single national registry of CSOs available to the public that includes all CSOs in the country; instead, there are multiple registries, including the Registry of the MINGOB and the Public Registry in the section on legal persons.  The existence of both registries allows, in practice, for some organizations to register with the Public Registry and not with the MINGOB.  In addition, the MINGOB’s records are not easily accessible to the general public.

Barriers to Speech / Advocacy

There are no legal barriers to speech and advocacy. 

Nonetheless, CSOs engaging in advocacy activities may confront challenges in the form of hostile government rhetoric and the establishment of GONGOs (government-organized NGOs).  GONGOs are those organizations that have been established by or are affiliated with politicians and political parties; in some cases these organizations receive public funding.  Many within civil society believe that the existence of GONGOs has fueled the de-legitimization, fragmentation, lack of coherence and lack of sustainability in the civic sector and weakened the voices of truly independent CSOs.           

Barriers to International Contact

Members of the board of a CSO must be Panamanian, except for embassy officials, diplomatic personnel, and functionaries of state agencies and foreign entities that are a represented in Panama, all of whom can be members of a CSO’s board.  The general rule against non-Panamanian board membership limits the ability of foreigners who do not fall into one of the specified categories to contribute to civil society in the country.

Barriers to Resources

There are no significant barriers to resources in Panama.

Barriers to Assembly

Public meetings and assemblies in Panama are governed by the Constitution and by the Administrative Code.

Notification. Holding a peaceful meeting or assembly requires notice addressed to the Mayor and must be provided 24 hours prior to the date of the meeting or assembly (Article 38, National Constitution). The notification does not require authorization from the Mayor’s office; therefore the notice cannot be denied.  The Mayor is simply supposed to issue a statement whereby he declares that he has been notified of the assembly. In practice, however, the Mayor responds to the notice in 1 to 3 days, and sometimes issues clarifications or amendments to the notification.

The Administrative Code states that public demonstrations are not allowed without prior authorization of the Mayor if they impede public transit in streets or squares or other public lanes (Article 1344).

Spontaneous assemblies are not legally permitted.

Enforcement. Article 38 of the Constitution allows the government to prevent assemblies when the manner in which they are exercised “causes or may cause obstruction to free transit, disturbs to public order or violation to third parties rights.”
In practice, current and previous governments have applied excessive police force to suppress public gatherings.

Criminal Penalties. Article 170 of the Penal Code on Crimes Against Freedom of Assembly and Press states: “The person who, abusing his right to assemble or to hold meetings, and with violence, impedes the free transit of the vehicles on public lanes in the country, causing damages to public or private property, shall be punished with six months to two years of prison.” This article has been used to justify police repression of public gathering and meetings.

While any action to impede a public gathering also constitutes a crime, the authorities, in practice, fail to provide sufficient protection to the organizers and participants of peaceful assemblies.

Excessive police force to suppress public gatherings. Panamanian governments have applied excessive police force to suppress public gatherings. In particular, the authorities have used Article 170 of the Penal Code, which permits the suppression of public gatherings that disturb free transit. For example, in Colon, in October 2012, the police excessively used tear gas, pepper spray, bird shots and gunfire to stop a public gathering that was considered to have disturbed free transit.

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Reports

UN Universal Periodic Review Reports

Ninth session Geneva, 1-12 November 2010

Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs

Panama

USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes

Not available

U.S. State Department

Background Note: Panama

Fragile States Index Reports

Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index

IMF Country Reports

Panama and the IMF

International Commission of Jurists

Not available

International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library

Panama

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News and Additional Resources

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 ngomonitor@icnl.org.

General News

Letter from Citizens Alliance for Justice sent to President of the Supreme Court of Justice (April 2014) (in Spanish)
The text of the letter that the Citizens Alliance for Justice sent to Jose Ayu Prado, President of the Supreme Court of Justice, was publicized on 20 March. The letter was about a report that a magistrate issued judgments based on personal business concerns. However, the Constitution of the Republic of Panama in Article 210 states: " The Magistrates and Judges are independent in the exercise of their functions and are subject only to the Constitution and the Law..."

Public Hearing at the Interamerican Comission of Human Rights (November 2013)
On October 31, 2013, there was a hearing about the situation of prisions in Panama. Four organizations, including Stanford, Harvard, the Citizens Alliance for Justice, and JUSPAX, cited said that Panam still violates 'persistently' the rights of detainees, despite 'huge investments'. (in Spanish)

Honran la labor de 10 activistas de los derechos humanos (October 2013)
La Red de Organizaciones de Derechos Humanos efectuará a las 5:30 p.m. de hoy, en el hotel Continental, un acto para reconocer la labor de 10 activistas que luchan por los derechos humanos, la juventud, los reclusos, el medio ambiente y la libertad de expresión.

Front For Democracy Held A March Against Martinelli's Style Of Government(September 2013)
Members of Front for Democracy held a march against the style of government of Ricardo Martinelli and the perceived weakening of democratic institutions in the country.

International Development Bank (IDB) continues collaboration with civil society (February 2013)
The IDB considers civil society organizations as a vital partner in the development of Latin America and the Caribbean. During 2012, the Bank continued to focus on strengthen dialogue, consultation, participation and engagement with civil society. The 2013 Annual Meeting of the IDB's Board of Governors will take place on Panama from March 13 - 17, 2013 and the Civil Society Session will be held on Friday, March 15, 2013. This session will be co-organized with the Civil Society Consultative Group of Panama(ConSoc Panama).

CSOs rally to reject copyright legislation (October 2012)
The Panamanian Congress recently passed a dangerous copyright bill, and it is one step away from becoming law. Civil society organizations from around the world have rallied to urge President Ricardo Martinelli to reject the legislation, send it back to Congress, and allow experts and civil society members to be involved in the process. The bill has caused a huge uproar around the world, including one report calling it “the worst copyright bill in history.”

"Civil Society" Screeching Over Supreme Court Appointments (June 2012)
Law & Lawyers Professor Miguel Antonio Bernal and the Executive Secretary of the Citizens Alliance for Justice, Magaly Castillo agreed that the appointment of three new judges of the Fifth Chamber is "a fragrant violation of the agreements of the State covenant for justice." For Bernal the designations of Lilia Herrera, Anabel Padilla and Arturo Vallarino as Supreme Court judges should be considered by society as an affront to participatory democracy. "It's sad what's happening in our country, and now with this appointment and violating all the agreements of the pact, signifies a setback for democracy and the Panamanian justice system," said Bernal.

USAID Cites Panama Success as Program Ends (June 2012)
Panama’s strong economic growth and commitment to development has brought more than half a century of collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to an end. The progress Panama has achieved is a development success story, USAID said in a June 13 press release.            

Protester deaths need proper investigation (February 2012)
Panama’s authorities must investigate allegations of excessive use of force by police after two protestors were killed during three days of clashes between security forces and the Ngäbe-Buglé people, Amnesty International said today. Jerónimo Rodríguez Tugrí was allegedly shot dead by police in San Felix in eastern Chiriquí province on 5 February, and more than 40 others – including police officers – have reportedly been wounded during the demonstrations.

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