(New York) – The Bangladesh government has proposed a law that would impose draconian restrictions on already beleaguered nongovernmental organizations, Human Rights Watch said today. Bangladesh’s donors should publicly express concerns about restrictions that are aimed at silencing government critics. The draft law is to be presented to the parliamentary standing committee for consideration. The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, 2014, would regulate operations and funding for any group with foreign funding as well as Bangladesh offices of foreign and international organizations. The NGO Affairs Bureau in the prime minister’s office would have approval authority over foreign-funded projects. It would have the authority to “inspect, monitor and assess the activities” of groups and individuals and to close groups and cancel their registration if it sees fit.
“The draft law can easily be misused to limit perfectly legitimate activities of NGOs and to attack critics,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Corruption is flourishing in the government and the private sector, so it is more than odd that the government is spending its time passing tough laws that target NGOs.”
The law should be withdrawn. But if it moves through parliament, the standing committee needs to amend the most problematic provisions so groups won’t be starved of funding and subjected to arbitrary restrictions.
The draft law gives line ministries the authority to require revision of nongovernmental organizations’ projects or to order them cancelled. It also requires prior approval before anyone involved in voluntary activities travels out of the country for purposes connected with their work on the project. That provision is a potential violation of article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which gives anyone the freedom to leave any country, including their own.
The government has held consultations with independent groups over the proposed legislation. Some concerns over the bill have been addressed, but the draft still contains unnecessary, onerous, and intrusive provisions. The vague and overly broad language would effectively give the NGO Affairs Bureau control over the activities of nongovernmental organizations.
The provision requiring approval for foreign funding would effectively allow government control over the issues groups receiving foreign funding can work on. It requires groups receiving or planning to receive foreign funding to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau, submit to inspections and monthly coordination meetings with its representatives, and seek approval for all planned activities before receiving the grant. In addition to the reporting requirements and control measures, the bill proposes tough sanctions for non-compliance by both organizations and individuals, including fines and disciplinary action.
“These are the kind of restrictions one usually associates with a one-party or authoritarian state, not a democracy like Bangladesh,” Robertson said. “Governments should not be in the business of deciding what is and isn’t a good project or whether people can travel outside the country.”
If there is disagreement over any order under the law, the nongovernmental organization or the individuals involved would be able to file an appeal with the prime minister’s office. However, the draft states that its ruling would be final, denying recourse to an independent judicial process.
The NGO Affairs Bureau has previously blocked funds to groups and opened investigations on political grounds. It has frequently blocked funds for the respected human rights group Odhikar, apparently in retaliation for criticizing the government. Odhikar staff members Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan have been arrested and harassed and are facing politically motivated criminal charges under the Information Communication and Technology Act.
Ain-o-Salish Kendra, another well-known human rights organization, has also reported increasing surveillance. In May, there was an attempt by unidentified people to abduct Mohammad Nur Khan, the group’s investigations director, who has also been threatened for criticizing extrajudicial killings by security forces.
“Given the previous arbitrary behavior of the NGO Affairs Bureau and its lack of transparency, it is imperative to establish an independent appeals process,” Robertson said.
The Bangladesh government says it needs to adopt a law to regulate nongovernmental groups to prevent financial or other misbehavior. But Bangladesh already has laws through which terrorist or illegal activities by independent groups and others can be addressed. The criminal law, anti-terror laws, tax law, and existing regulations governing activities of nongovernmental groups already provide a framework to deal with organizations or members that are involved in illegal activity.
The International Centre for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL) has said previously that Bangladeshi procedures regulating nongovernmental organizations are already plagued by delays, hurdles, non-transparency, and arbitrary decisions. This new bill would codify existing practice and introduce further onerous measures.
International donors should press the Awami League government to ensure that groups receive their funding and are allowed to work without unnecessary government interference. The government should withdraw the bill and use existing legislation to regulate groups’ activities.
“The draft bill as it stands would dramatically interfere with donor funding of key development and human rights work in Bangladesh,” Robertson said. “Donors should raise these concerns in public and private to ensure the bill is either withdrawn or, failing that, amended to get rid of the problematic provisions outlined by independent groups in their consultations with the government.”