Last updated: 12 January 2024


Under the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein, there was essentially no independent civil society within Iraq. Nearly every civic institution that existed was affiliated with the ruling Ba’ath party and thus could not be said to be a truly “non-governmental” organization. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country witnessed a major opening up of civic space, as thousands of new Iraqi non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were established and registered under Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 45 on Non-Governmental Organizations (2003). At first most of these NGOs were dedicated to humanitarian and relief efforts, but NGOs have since begun to focus on human rights and democratic development, including elections and constitutional reform.

With the end of Coalition Provisional Authority and the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty in June 2004, Iraq’s emerging civil society leaders worked with Iraqi government officials and international and domestic NGOs to advocate for the adoption of a new NGO law that would be more consistent with international law and best practices. After years of efforts, Iraqi NGOs finally achieved their goal on January 25, 2010, when the Iraqi Council of Representatives voted to approve a new Law on Non-Governmental Organizations (Law 12 of 2010) [English] [عربي] [کوردی] on the final day of the first post-war parliamentary session. The new NGO law was ratified by the Presidency Council on March 2, 2010, and went into effect on April 7, 2010, when it was published in the Official Gazette.

The new law is a significant improvement upon previous laws and regulations as well as the draft law first prepared by the Iraqi government in March 2009. Among other changes, Law 12 of 2010:

  • Eases restrictions on foreign funding and affiliation with foreign organizations. The March 2009 draft prohibited Iraqi NGOs from receiving foreign funding or from “affiliating” with any foreign entity (including the UN, the European Commission, USAID, International Red Cross/Red Crescent, etc.) without prior approval of the government. These provisions were removed, thus enabling Iraqi NGOs to partner more efficiently with the international community on reconstruction and humanitarian assistance projects.
  • Limits the state’s ability to reject registration applications. Under the March 2009 draft, an application for registration could be rejected for any reason. The new law requires that the denial of registration be tied to a specific provision of law.
  • Removes criminal penalties. Criminal penalties contained in the March draft were removed, including imprisonment for up to three years for being a member of an improperly registered NGO.
  • Restricts the state’s ability to carry out audits and internal inspections. Discretion to audit or inspect an NGO’s office is only permissible with cause, instead of at any time and for any reason as under CPA Order 45.
  • Creates a judicial check on the state’s ability to suspend an NGO. Suspension of an NGO and confiscation of its property requires a court order, and can no longer be made at the discretion of government authorities as in CPA Order 45. Suspension of an NGO and confiscation of its property requires a court order, and can no longer be made at the discretion of government authorities as in CPA Order 45.

The Council of Representative’s approval of the new law was greeted as an enormous success by Iraqi civil society leaders and government officials, and received substantial media coverage inside and outside of Iraq.

Kurdistan Regional Government

The Law on Non-Governmental Organizations in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan Regional Government Law 1 of 2011) [English] [عربي] [کوردی] was approved by the Parliament of Kurdistan on April 6, 2011, and signed by the President of the Kurdistan Region. This was a significant milestone for Kurdish and Iraqi civil society and laid the groundwork for a new era in civil society-government relations in Kurdistan. Among other significant changes, the new Law on Non-Governmental Organizations in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region:

  • Substantially improves and simplifies the process of registering an NGO. Responding to one of the key demands of Kurdish civil society, registration authority has been moved from the Ministry of the Interior to an independent NGOs Directorate under the authority of the Council of Ministers. In addition, a dated receipt must be provided to applicants at the time that a registration application is submitted, and if no decision is made within 30 days then the registration application is considered approved under the law.
  • Creates the conditions for NGO financial sustainability. Kurdish NGOs are allowed to obtain financial resources from a wide range of sources, including grants, economic activities, and foreign and domestic fundraising.
  • Removes all restrictions on the associational rights of foreign residents in Kurdistan. Foreign residents have the right to form and join Kurdish NGOs and serve on their Board of Directors. This is a significant improvement upon past practice as well as the recently passed federal Law on Non-Governmental Organizations (Law 12 of 2010), which imposes some limitations on the associational rights of foreign nationals.
  • Removes all criminal penalties. Kurdish NGOs are subject to administrative penalties and fines for violations of the NGO law, and disproportionate criminal penalties and prison sentences for individuals associated with NGOs have been removed.
  • Adds greater transparency to government funding of NGOs. In a significant departure from past practice, all Kurdistan Regional Government funding to Kurdish NGOs is required to be awarded in a competitive and transparent process.
Organizational Forms Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)
Registration Body Federal Government: NGOs Directorate (General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers)
Kurdistan Regional Government: NGOs Department (General Secretariat of the Kurdistan Regional Government Council of Ministers)
Approximate Number As of June 2022, the Federal NGOs Directorate reported that it had registered 4,800 NGOs. In Kurdistan, the NGO Directorate reported approximately 5,000 NGOs registered as of July 2022.
Barriers to Entry At the federal level, a Council of Ministers regulation states that registration is mandatory for NGOs prior to beginning operations. Law 12 of 2010 does not contain this requirement. A coalition of Iraqi NGOs are planning to challenge the provision in court.

Branches of foreign NGOs that seek to register in Iraq must provide a copy of the Iraqi nationality certificates and civil status identity cards of their Iraqi staff as well as copies of the passports and residence documents of their foreign staff.

Barriers to Activities No legal barriers
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy No legal barriers
Barriers to International Contact No legal barriers
Barriers to Resources No legal barriers
Barriers to Assembly Notification is required at least 24 hours before a public assembly, and the state has broad discretion in limiting a gathering’s size and location. Violent force has been used against protesters on numerous occasions in both Iraq and Kurdistan.
Population 41,266,109 (2023 est.)
Capital Baghdad
Type of Government Parliamentary democracy
Life Expectancy at Birth Male: 71.58 years
Female: 75.42 years (2023 est.)
Literacy Rate Total population: 85.6%
Male: 91.2%
Female: 79.9% (2017)
Religious Groups Muslim 95-98% (Shia 61-64%, Sunni 29-34%), Christian 1%, other 1-4% (2015 est.)
Ethnic Groups Arab 75-80%, Kurdish 15-20%, other 5%
GDP Per Capita (PPP) $9,000 (2021 est.)

Source: The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency.

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 121 (2022) 1 – 191
Transparency International 157 (2022) 1 – 180
Fund for Peace: Fragile States Index 27 (2023) 179 – 1
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Not Free
Political Rights: 16
Civil Liberties: 13 (2023)
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 40
1 – 60

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International Agreements Ratification* Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Yes 1971
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1) No
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Yes 1971
Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR) No
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) Yes 1970
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Yes 1986
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women No
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Yes 1994
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) No
Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction Yes 2013
Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Iraq and the European Union Member States Yes 2013
The Arab Convention to Combat Crimes of Information Technology Yes 2013
Key Regional Agreements Ratification* Year
Arab Charter on Human Rights Yes 2009

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

Constitutional Framework

The current Constitution of Iraq was approved by a referendum that took place on October 15, 2005.

Relevant constitutional provisions include:

  • Article 38: The state guarantees in a way that does not violate public order and morality: (A) Freedom of expression, through all means. (B) Freedom of press, printing, advertisement, media and publication. (C) Freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration.  This shall be regulated by law.
  • Article 39: First: The freedom of forming and joining associations and political parties is guaranteed. This will be organized by law.  Second: It is prohibited to force any person to join any party, society or political entity or force him to continue his membership in it.
  • Article 40: The freedom of communication, and mail, telegraphic, electronic, and telephonic correspondence, and other correspondence shall be guaranteed and may not be monitored, wiretapped or disclosed except for legal and security necessity and by a judicial decision.
  • Article 41: Each individual has freedom of thought, conscience and belief.

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

Relevant national-level laws and regulations affecting civil society include:

  • Federal Government: Law on Non-Governmental Organizations (Law 12 of 2010) [English] [عربي] [کوردی], Law of the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice (Law 10 of 2008) [English] [عربي], Instructions to Implement the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations (Council of Ministers Instructions 6 of 2010) [English] [عربي]
  • Kurdistan Regional Government: Law on Non-Governmental Organizations in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (Kurdistan Regional Government Law 1 of 2011) [English] [عربي] [کوردی]

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

In mid-2023, the Iraqi government reportedly re-introduced two draft laws to the Parliament which, if passed, would severely curtail the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The draft Law on Freedom of Expression and Peaceful Assembly would prosecute anyone who makes public comments that violate “public morals” or “public order” and the draft Law on Cybercrimes would punish with a sentence of up to life imprisonment and a fine of up to 50 million Iraqi Dinars (around $38,000) anyone who posts online content that is deemed to undermine the vaguely defined “country’s supreme economic, political, military, or security interests.”

We are unaware of other current pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives. If you are aware of any additional information, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at

Organizational Forms

There is a single legal form available for registered, not-for-profit organizations in Iraq: the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). An NGO is defined as “a group of natural or legal persons that have registered and obtained legal personality according to the terms of this Law to pursue not‐for‐profit purposes” (Article 1(First) of Law 12 of 2010). A foreign NGO is defined as “a branch of an NGO that has been established according to the laws of another country” (Article 1(Second) of Law 12 of 2010).

Public Benefit Status

NGOs are free to pursue any not-for-profit purposes. NGOs seeking to “achieve a public interest” can apply for “public utility” status (Article 17 of Law 12 of 2010). If granted, such NGOs “shall be exempted from income tax, VAT, customs duties, and sales tax” (Article 17 of Law 12 of 2010). Public utility status is granted by “a decision of the Council of Ministers based on a proposal by the Secretary General of the Council of Ministers” (Article 17 of Law 12 of 2010).

Public Participation

In general, public participation rights are not institutionalized.  In most of Iraq, there is neither a compact (a cooperation policy document) nor a right to access information.  While there have been drafts of compacts and a draft access to information law, they have never been approved by the government or parliament.

However, Iraqi Kurdistan does have some mechanisms for and protection of public participation and access to information. Since 2013, there has been a a cooperation policy document called “The Compact on Partnership and Development between Public Authorities and Non- Governmental Organizations in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.” This document “is based on the understanding that for a developing and permanent democratic system, the public sector must involve its citizens and non-governmental organizations in the decision-making process.” In addition, the Kurdistan region has had a Right to Access to Information Law since 2013.  Despite these legal protections, awareness on the right to public participation is very low.

Barriers to Entry

While Law 12 of 2010 does not contain any significant barriers to entry, the Implementing Regulation passed by the Council of Ministers contains a requirement of mandatory registration for all NGOs. ICNL understands that a coalition of Iraqi NGOs are planning to challenge the provision in court. Further, Iraq’s NGO Directorate now requires all aspiring organizations to obtain approval from the Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice, before they may register. Branches of foreign NGOs that seek to register in Iraq must provide a copy of the Iraqi nationality certificates and civil status identity cards of their Iraqi staff as well as copies of the passports and residence documents of their foreign staff (Article 25 of Law 12 of 2010). This provision has been criticized as a barrier to the registration of foreign NGOs, which may have concerns about the security of their staff if their identification information is required to be shared. In Kurdistan, for its part, the NGO Department requires foreign organizations to renew their registration every year.

Barriers to Operational Activity


Barriers to Speech / Advocacy

Human Rights Watch reported on April 22, 2021 that “A court in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq sentenced three journalists and two activists to six years in prison on February 16, 2021, in deeply flawed proceedings. The authorities continue to hold two other people despite a court ruling that there was insufficient evidence to try them.” These latter two activists were known to “frequently criticize government practices and call for reforms.” Human Rights Watch noted that these cases represented a “worsening” trend.

In addition, on April 3, 2020, Iraq revoked Reuters news agency’s reporting license for three months after the agency reported that the number of new coronavirus cases in the country was in the thousands–much higher than official figures. Besides temporarily revoking Reuters’s licence, Iraq said it would impose a fine of around $21,000 and asked Reuters to issue an apology for a report that “put social security at risk.”

More recently, in January and February 2023, a judge at the Third Investigative Court in al-Karkh, who specializes in media and publishing, announced that the courts had charged 14 people for publishing “indecent” or “immoral” content on social media and had already sentenced six of those individuals to prison terms ranging between six months to two years.

Barriers to International Contact


Barriers to Resources


Barriers to Assembly

The Constitution of Iraq provides in Article 38 that “[t]he State shall guarantee in a way that does not violate public order and morality… freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration, and this shall be regulated by law.” Provisional Order 19 of 2003, adopted by the Coalition Provisional Authority, provides a framework regulation for public assemblies and demonstrations. In addition, the Interior Ministry has issued a number of regulations to restrict assemblies in specific circumstances; for instance, an order circulated in April 2011, that banned street protests and allowed demonstrations to take place only in certain football stadiums. Finally, as discussed above, in May 2011 Iraq’s Council of Ministers approved a draft Law on the Freedom of Expression, Assembly, and Peaceful Demonstration. The draft law subsequently stalled and at the time of this writing has not been formally approved by Iraq’s Parliament; as such, it appears that CPA Order 19, as amended, remains the primary law regulating demonstrations and assemblies in Iraq.

Advanced Notification. Article 4 of Order 19 prohibits “any march, assembly, meeting or gathering on roadways, public thoroughfares or public places unless an Approving Authority has been given notice in writing of the location, the maximum number of persons participating, and the names and addresses of the organizers of any such march, assembly, meeting or gathering, its route, and its time of inception and duration at least 24 hours before such inception.” The Order does not provide specific grounds on which authorities may reject the notice, as such they appear to have broad discretion to do so. Article 9 of Order 100 of 2004, which amended parts of Order 19, granted the right for organizers to appeal to a federal court if denied the opportunity to assemble, and if such denial is “arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise contrary to law.”

Time and Place Restrictions. Article 3 of Order 19 includes constraints on the timing, duration, and location of assemblies. It provides, for instance, that assemblies cannot be held in public places for more than four hours; cannot be held during peak traffic hours – i.e. from 7:30-9am and 4:30-6pm on business days – unless approved by authorities beforehand; and cannot be cannot be closer than 500 meters to embassies and their regional offices. The Order also prohibits assemblies on roadways unless they are limited to a size that “will not unreasonably obstruct pedestrian or vehicular traffic,” as determined by authorities. The Order provides that in such a case, within 12 hours of receiving notice of the planned assembly, authorities will inform the applicant group of the maximum number of authorized participants. Finally, the Order prohibits groups from holding public assemblies or marches in more than one location or municipality, on the same day, unless authorized beforehand. The authorities thus appear to have broad discretion in limiting the location, timing, and size of assemblies.

Criminal Penalties. Article 7 of Order 19 stipulates “that any individual violating this Order may be detained, arrested, prosecuted and, if convicted, sentenced to up to one year in prison.” Accordingly, any person who organizes or participates in an unauthorized assembly may be liable to imprisonment for up to one year. Enforcement. In recent years, security forces in both Iraq and Kurdistan have frequently used violent force in responding to and suppressing protests. During anti-government demonstrations across the country in February 2011, for instance, security forces killed at least 12 protestors and injured over 100. Unarmed journalists were included among those injured. In the same week, security forces in Kurdistan likewise responded to opposition protests with violence, resulting in the deaths of more than ten people and injuring more than 250. In April 2013, Iraqi military forces clashed with anti-government protesters conducting a peaceful sit-in near the city of Hawija, killing more than 40 people and injuring hundreds with live ammunition and tear gas.

COVID-19 Restrictions. On February 26, 2020, Iraq’s Ministry of Health issued an order imposing a 14-day ban on all public gatherings to combat the spread of coronavirus. At least eight journalists were also arrested in Iraqi Kurdistan while covering a protest by public school teachers and government employees who were demanding their salaries be paid. Kurdish officials stated that the journalists and 11 protesters were detained for violating the ban on mass gatherings that was imposed due to COVID-19.

UN Universal Periodic Review Reports Iraq (2019)
USIG (United States International Grantmaking) Country Notes Not available
U.S. State Department Human Rights Reports 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021
IMF Country Reports Iraq
International Commission of Jurists Iraq
NGO Regulation Network Reports Not available
International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library Iraq

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

News Items

Women peace and security agenda in Iraq stuck between the law and reality on the ground (November 2023)

CSOs, foreign diplomats and the secretary general of the Kurdistan Region’s High Council for Women and Development identified the gap between the law and the reality on the ground as one of the main elements hindering progress on the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq, at a conference sponsored by the Italian foreign ministry in Erbil. UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security focuses on the role of women in the “prevention and resolution of conflicts” as well as their participation in politics and reconstruction efforts post conflict.

Who is cracking down on Iraq’s anti-government protesters? (February 2020)

Activists have blamed unidentified armed groups, that are not part of the government security forces but are affiliated with Iran-backed militias, for attacks against anti-government protesters. In December, the UN said in a report in that “groups referred to as ‘militia’, ‘unknown third parties’, ‘armed entities’, ‘outlaws’ and ‘spoilers’ are responsible for the deliberate killings and abductions of demonstrators.”

‘We Are Not Going To Leave’: Iraq’s Protests Escalate (January 2020)

More than three months after they began, protests in Iraq have escalated and taken a new turn this week. Anti-government demonstrators are attempting to force drastic change in a country whose government is in turmoil and grappling with a crisis between Iran and the United States. Tactics such as blocking highways and forcing the closure of government offices have now set the protest movement, which began in early October, on a more dangerous collision course with security forces. Although most of the focus has been on Baghdad, some of the fiercest demonstrations have taken place in cities further south.

Protesters block Iraqi commodities port (September 2018)
Protesters blocked the entrance to Iraq’s Umm Qasr commodities port on Wednesday to demand better services, port employees and local government officials said, raising the stakes in some of the worst unrest in southern cities in months. The move came hours after stone-throwing protesters set fire to the main provincial government building in the oil hub of Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. The highway from Basra to Baghdad was cut off by demonstrators.

Iraq after the Arab Spring (January 2016)
The Arab Spring carried with it the Middle East’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. Like its cousins in Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa almost 30 years ago, it promised to be the spark to transform the region into a haven of democracy and bring the grip of autocracy to an end.The “fourth wave of democracy”, though, it wasn’t to be. Unease replaced optimism very quickly. Instead of falling like dominoes, regimes reasserted their authority with characteristic brutality. Revolutions were reversed; autocracies returned with a vengeance; protests developed into full-blown civil wars. Instead of becoming a “beacon of democracy” in the Arab world. Iraq has become a haven for Daesh, arguably the most extreme sectarian group of the very many in the region.

News Archive

Cooperation Compact Reached between the Public Authorities and CSOs (September 2013)

Iraqi authorities must not block peaceful protests (September 2013)

Iraq’s Sadr Encourages Anti-government Demonstrations (January 2013)

Cybercrimes law violates free speech (July 2012)

The 20th Anniversary of the Parliament of Kurdistan: An open letter from the FCSO (May 2012)

EU and UNOPS release report on Iraqi human rights work related to detainees and torture victims (April 2012)

In Iraq, concern over shrinking rights (April 2012)

Finally, a law protecting Iraq’s journalists (May 2011)

Iraq’s protests test Maliki’s leadership (March 2011)

Vulnerable citizens at risk (February 2011)

Iraq stalemate ends (November 2010)

Iraqi court issues ruling for Parliament to return (October 2010)

Representatives of the Iraqi Government, Parliament, and NGOs agree on recommendations for the implementing regulation to the new Iraqi NGO law (July 2010)

Interview about the new Iraqi NGO law with Legal Advisor Kareem Elbayar (July 2010)

Iraq: Political uncertainty causing aid funds to dry up? (July 2010)

Iraq’s new ruling elite show contempt for voters (March 2010)

It’s up to Iraqis now. Good luck. (March 2010)