(New York) – The Bangladeshi government’s recently announced commission to regulate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) adds burdensome procedures that will hinder important watchdog functions. International donors should press the Awami League government to ensure that the country’s thriving NGO sector can continue to work without unnecessary government interference.
On August 25, 2012, the Bangladeshi government stated it was going to launch a commission to look into the operations of NGOs, claiming that many were involved in “terror-financing and other anti-state activities.” The government announced at the same time that it had cancelled the registration of some 6,000 NGOs because of links to “anti-state” activities and is in the process of examining the registration certificates of an additional 4,000.
“The Awami League regularly claims that it is the only political party that will protect democracy and pluralism in Bangladesh, but its attempts to control NGO activity call this into serious question,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If previous governments had attempted to regulate non-governmental organizations in this way, the Awami League would have rightly claimed that this was an attempt to stifle freedom of expression and association.”
Human Rights Watch pointed out that Bangladesh already has in place other laws through which terrorist or illegal activities by NGOs and others can be addressed. The criminal law, anti-terror laws, tax law, and existing regulations governing NGO activities already provide a framework to deal with individuals within NGOs or organizations involved in illegal activity.
“The government has not shown any serious terror threat arising from ‘many’ NGOs nor why the existing criminal law is insufficient to deal with any problems that may arise,” said Adams. “This is just a smoke screen to exert political control over civil society.”
NGOs play a critical role in Bangladesh in areas such as poverty reduction, economic development, health and education, and human rights. The government estimates that there are nearly 50,000 active NGOs operating throughout the country.
NGOs operating in Bangladesh already face an overly cumbersome and intrusive regulatory process, including needing multiple approvals to register and to implement projects. NGOs operating in Bangladesh have to clear what the International Centre for Non-Profit Law (ICNL) describes as a process “complicated by delays and hurdles,” including non-transparency in authorization of registration by the Home Ministry, the police, or the National Security Intelligence.
NGOs operating in Bangladesh report long delays and arbitrary refusals at various stages of the approvals process. The NGO Affairs Bureau in the Prime Minister’s office often simply rejects requests for registration or project proposals on arbitrary grounds, at times for apparently political reasons. NGOs have reported to Human Rights Watch that corruption is a major problem, with bribes demanded to gain approval in the NGO Affairs Bureau and at various ministries and local government offices.
Human Rights Watch noted that the Bangladeshi government is also on the verge of announcing new laws restricting the receipt of foreign contributions to NGOs. The new law would require several levels of prior government approval for any project which relies in any part on foreign donations.
Human Rights Watch has previously criticized the Indian Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, which is very similar to the Bangladeshi draft law, because of the unnecessary burdens it places on foreign contributions for charitable work, as well as other similar laws or draft laws in other countries.
“The Bangladeshi government increasingly acts as though it is interested in controlling the NGO sector to a minute level of detail, which will only stifle civil society activity rather than encourage it,” said Adams. “Instead of setting up a commission to breathe down the necks of NGOs, the government should set up a commission to investigate the alleged epidemic of corruption in the NGO Affairs Bureau and other government agencies which steals funds from projects that serve the public interest.”