The Zimbabwean government this week defended a proposed ban on foreign human rights groups and restrictions on local rights organisations, describing them as a "threat to national security".
In a statement issued by the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, placed in all the Sunday newspapers, the government also accused donors of employing "local puppets to champion foreign values".
The proposed Non-Governmental Organisations Bill seeks to ban foreign NGOs concerned principally with "issues of governance", and deny registration to NGOs receiving foreign funding for "promotion and protection of human rights and political governance issues". Details of the bill, which constitute a blow to local civil society, were provided by the government on Friday.
The bill requires all NGOs to register with a government-appointed regulatory council similar to the controversial Media and Information Commission, and disclose details of their programmes and funding. This council will comprise five representatives from civil society and nine government members, all appointed by the Minister of Labour and Social Welfare. NGOs without registration licenses will be shut down, and officials who continue with their activities illegally could face up to six months in prison.
Organisations involved in charity work, disbursing humanitarian assistance, the provision of funds for legal aid, animal welfare, environmental issues and the promotion of human rights are all covered in the bill.
The regulatory council will have the power to formulate a code of conduct for NGOs and decide whether a particular NGO can be registered. The council will also have the right to cancel a registration on several grounds, including if it feels that the NGO's objectives when it was registered "are merely ancillary to, or incidental to, the other objects of the organisation." NGOs will be required to pay an annual registration fee.
The government statement on Sunday said some NGOs were "deviant and others dabble in politics ... This legislation should not come as a surprise ... to patent adversaries of government. It was long overdue". It added the bill was aimed at helping other NGOS to work without being pressured into being anti-government.
Brian Kagoro, chief executive of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a group of pro-democracy NGOs, had previously told IRIN that the bill would hamper the ability of NGOs to "monitor the administration of development assistance and humanitarian aid, and to make sure it is not politicised to the benefit of any party, especially the ruling party".
Local human rights advocacy group ZimRights, which has been in existence for the past 12 years and receives overseas funding for its legal aid and human rights campaigns, said its activities would be curtailed. "According to Section 17 of the bill, local NGOs carrying out 'activities involving or including issues of governance', defined as human rights activities in the bill, will not be able to function," ZimRights national director Bidi Munyaradzi told IRIN.
"In terms of the bill, even church groups that have been vocal on human rights issues will be under government scrutiny, as it only excludes religious groups confined to religious work," he added.
In their analysis of the bill, Arnold Tsunga and Tafadzwa Mugabe of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights noted that the proposed legislation was "calculated at limiting the individual as well as the collective enjoyment of universally recognised rights and fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly and association of the citizens of Zimbabwe".
Kagoro added, "That there is an attempt [through] the bill to proscribe and severely limit the role of civil society speaks volumes of the extent to which they [government] intend to control the forthcoming elections", due in March 2005.
Parliament, dominated by ZANU-PF, is expected to approve the bill when it reconvenes in October.
Meanwhile, the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations in Zimbabwe is to discuss the bill at a public meeting in Harare on Friday.
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