(London) - The Zimbabwe government’s draft law to regulate nongovernmental organizations threatens the existence of civil society groups in the country, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today. Scheduled for a vote in parliament next week, the bill substantially restricts freedom of association and thus falls far short of the Southern African Development Community’s principles to protect human rights during elections.

“A vibrant civil society is crucial for a functioning democracy,” said Georgette Gagnon, deputy director at Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. “With elections coming up in March, Zimbabwe needs to allow sufficient space for civil society groups, not pass a law that would stifle them.”

The briefing paper details how the draft law—known as the Non-Governmental Organizations Bill—would infringe on fundamental human rights, particularly the freedom of association. The bill would also significantly increase government control over civil society groups.

Moreover, the bill is inconsistent with the Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections recently agreed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which Zimbabwe is a member state. Agreed at the SADC summit in August, the Principles and Guidelines commit member states to protect “the human and civil liberties of all citizens, including the freedom of movement, assembly, association, expression ... during electoral processes.”

Compared with similar laws in five of the 14 SADC member states, the Zimbabwean bill provides for substantially greater government surveillance and control of nongovernmental organizations. The law would give the Minister of Public Service, Labor and Social Welfare and the Non-Governmental Organization Council new intrusive powers.

“This law would enable the government to intervene in the reasonable activities of civil society organizations and possibly force many of them to close,” Gagnon said. “It would undermine the fundamental freedoms of association and expression in Zimbabwe.”

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about the limitations that the proposed law would place on nongovernmental organizations active on issues of governance, including human rights. The draft law states that no foreign nongovernmental organization will be registered if “its sole or principal objects involve or include issues of governance,” which includes the protection of human rights. Similarly, local organizations working on matters such as governance issues would be barred from receiving “any foreign funding or donation.” Both clauses are inconsistent with the SADC Principles and Guidelines and with the Zimbabwean constitution as well.

Moreover, 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 with membership that includes expatriate Zimbabweans would thus be considered foreign. Many civil society organizations in Zimbabwe currently depend on foreign and expatriate funding for their activities.

Human Rights Watch called on SADC member states to urge the Zimbabwe government to reconcile its proposed nongovernmental organization law with the regional organization’s standards, and especially those on protection of freedom of association in elections.

“The government should immediately withdraw the bill or amend it to comply with Zimbabwe’s human rights commitments,” Gagnon said.