Since South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the country has had a small but crucial flowering of civil society efforts to protect media freedom and advocate for justice and human rights.
But South Sudan’s lawmakers will consider a bill next week on the registration and monitoring of nongovernmental organizations that could block these efforts at citizen participation just as they’re getting started.
The law has been in the works since 2007, long before the country even existed, and a new version is being worked on this week. But recent drafts contain worrisome provisions that could be used to restrict organizations that criticize the government, and would undermine the right to freedom of association that the interim constitution protects.
The bill includes a list of acceptable objectives for nongovernmental groups – humanitarian aid, relief and rehabilitation, and capacity building. That’s all fine, but does it mean to restrict groups to that list? What about democracy, rule of law, governance and human rights activities?
Recent versions of the bill would empower a government-appointed registrar to block groups from registering based on vague principles such as “non-interference with the national sovereignty.” Could calling for an end to the death penalty, as some South Sudanese organizations are rightly doing, be considered interference with national sovereignty?
The bill would make registration mandatory and require annual re-registration. Operating an unauthorized group is a criminal offense punishable by a large fine or six months in prison. A board with members hand-picked by the government would be able to ask an aspiring group for many details about its proposed activities as well as any “other information” it chooses. This is all worryingly open-ended.
Parliament should think twice before passing a bill that could be a tool for the government to silence independent groups and discourage people from participating in public life. This bill has been in the works for a long time. It wouldn’t do any harm for lawmakers to postpone it until their next session and use that time to come up with a bill that creates space for South Sudan’s people to come together to advocate for human rights and the rule of law.