Background Briefing

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The government of Zimbabwe drafted the 2004 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Bill after a four-year period of deteriorating relations with oppositional civil society organizations, including NGOs, churches, trade unions, and the independent media.  The Bill will adversely affect, and effectively eliminate, all organizations involved in promoting and defending human rights.  These organizations see themselves as non-partisan. The government claims, without producing evidence, that many of them have abused Western donor funds to support the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).  Judging from the suspension of parliamentary standing orders to permit the passage of the Bill to be fast-tracked, the ruling party, ZANU PF, appears to be in a hurry to pass the Bill ahead of the March 2005 general election.

The NGO Bill is retrogressive. It violates the right to freedom of association. It significantly extends government control over organizations provided for in the current Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Act, which it seeks to repeal.  The PVO Act was deemed to limit civil liberties by the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights. The Bill denies local NGOs that are involved in  “issues of governance” access to foreign funding (clause 17) and prohibits the registration of foreign NGOs engaged in “issues of governance”(clause 9).  “Issues of governance” are defined by the Bill to include “the promotion and protection of human rights and political governance issues”.  Like the PVO Act, the Bill gives the Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare absolute control over the appointment of the NGO Council, which decides on registration and de-registration.  The Minister and the NGO Council, however, acquire new powers that they did not have under the PVO Act.  New burdens are placed on non-governmental organizations, including that they must register annually and pay annual registration fees.  The NGO Bill provides for an appeal process in some areas, making this the singular improvement compared with the PVO Act.  However, as in the PVO Act, there is no right of appeal, other than to the Minister, for organizations that seek to challenge NGO Council decisions on registration and de-registration.

Clauses 9 and 17 of the NGO Bill violate the freedom of association enshrined in the Constitution of Zimbabwe and numerous regional and international agreements that the Government of Zimbabwe has signed, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.   Clauses 9 and 17 also do not comply with international and regional guidelines such as the 2004 SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections or the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders that the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights reaffirmed in 2004.

Human Rights Watch urges the Government and Parliament of Zimbabwe to immediately withdraw the Bill and amend it to bring it in line with Zimbabwe’s obligations under the SADC Guidelines, the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and international conventions that the Government has signed.  Human Rights Watch also calls on the SADC members states - together and individually - to urge the Zimbabwe government to reconcile its proposed NGO law with SADC standards, including the SADC Guidelines for Democratic Elections, and in particular, the freedoms of association and expression.

index  |  next>>December 2004