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The Zimbabwean government should withdraw a proposed law on nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said today. The law would grant a government-appointed body wide power to interfere in the legitimate activities of these civil society groups and sharply curtail local human rights organizations’ access to funding.

“The law would unduly restrict the freedoms of association and of expression,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. “It would also enable the government to intervene in the reasonable activities of NGOs.”

In October, the Non-Governmental Organizations Draft Bill 2004 is to be tabled in parliament for discussion and debate. The law would require these organizations to register with a government-appointed Council of Non-Governmental Organizations that would have virtually unchecked power to investigate and audit the groups’ activities and funding. National and foreign NGOs would be required to register with the Council by submitting “the names, nationality and addresses of its promoters,” and sources of funding. Registration could be denied or withdrawn at any time if the Council determined that the organization “ceased to operate bona fide in furtherance of the objects for which it was registered.”

Registered NGOs would be required to submit annual accounts to the Council, which would then be subject to audit. The law would empower the Council to constantly monitor the groups. Leaders of any such organizations found to be in violation of the act would be subject to fines and imprisonment. The organizations could lodge objections to Council decisions, but the Minister would resolve them with no possibility of recourse to the courts.

“The proposed law would place each and every NGO at the whim of the government,” said Gagnon.

Of particular concern are the limitations that the proposed law places on NGOs active on issues of governance, including human rights. The draft law states that no foreign NGO will be registered if “its sole or principal objects involve or include issues of governance.” Similarly, local organizations working on matters such as governance issues would be barred from receiving “any foreign funding or donation.” The bill broadly defines as “foreign” anyone who is not “a permanent resident of Zimbabwe or a citizen of Zimbabwe domiciled in Zimbabwe.” Any Zimbabwean organization whose membership includes expatriate Zimbabweans would thus be considered foreign. Many NGOs in Zimbabwe currently depend on foreign and expatriate funding for their activities.

“A vibrant civil society is essential to a functioning democracy,” Gagnon said. “With parliamentary elections in March, the government needs to ensure space for civil society.”

In July, Zimbabwe announced that it would undertake electoral reforms that would comply with guidelines drafted by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). In August the regional group approved the Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, which require member states holding elections to “safeguard the human and civil liberties of all citizens, including the freedom of movement, assembly, association, expression and campaigning during electoral processes.”

As a member of the African Union, Zimbabwe is obliged to uphold the rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly that are protected by the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. In 1991, Zimbabwe acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which also protects the rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly.

“The proposed NGO law would undermine fundamental freedoms of association and expression,” Gagnon said. “The government must withdraw and substantially amend this law to make sure that Zimbabwe complies with its obligations under international human rights law.”

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