Rights groups must not be banned, says Amnesty

Rights group Amnesty International has expressed concern at reports that the Zimbabwe government intends to ban international human rights groups as well as foreign funding for local NGOs.

"The measures are reportedly contained in a draft bill governing the operation of NGOs," Amnesty said. The Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) and Churches Bill is expected to be tabled in parliament soon.

IRIN reported earlier that various Zimbabwean civil rights groups had slammed moves to introduce the bill, as it would give the government greater control over the operations of NGOs and churches.

"These reports indicate that, as with other legislation introduced in the past two years, the government will use this new bill to silence critical voices and further restrict the right to freedom of expression. It is a clear attempt by the government to suppress dissenting views as parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2005 draw closer," Amnesty International said.

The rights group called on the government of Zimbabwe to "immediately repeal or amend all legislation which violated the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and bring national legislation in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the African Charter and other international human rights standards".

Over the past three years NGOs have come under increasing fire, with the authorities accusing them of promoting foreign interests and supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

In September 2002 the government ordered NGOs to register under the Private Voluntary Organisations Act, a law also lambasted by rights activists at the time.

At the opening of parliament on 20 July, President Robert Mugabe confirmed that a new bill governing the operation of NGOs would be introduced to replace the Private Voluntary Organisations Act.

SAPA-AFP quoted Mugabe as saying that "NGOs must work for the betterment of our country and not against it".

"We cannot allow them to be conduits or instruments of foreign interference in our national affairs," Mugabe reportedly said, adding that the new bill would "ensure the rationalisation of the macro-management of all NGOs".