(Kampala) – A proposed bill to regulate nongovernmental groups would severely curb Ugandans’ basic rights, Chapter Four Uganda and Human Rights Watch said today. The bill would subject groups to such extensive government control and interference that it could negate the very essence of freedom of association and expression. A complete version of the bill was published in the government gazette on April 10, 2015, and is expected to be debated in parliament soon.

The new Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) bill would grant the internal affairs minister and the National Board for Non-governmental Organisations broad powers to supervise, approve, inspect, and dissolve all nongovernmental organizations and community based organizations, and would impose severe criminal penalties for violations. Among several troubling, broad, and vaguely worded provisions, one article would require all organizations to “not engage in any activity which is … contrary to the dignity of the people of Uganda.”

“If this bill is passed in its current form, it will obstruct the ability of all Ugandans to work collectively through local and international organizations on any research or advocacy that may be deemed critical of the government,” said Nicholas Opiyo, executive director of Chapter Four Uganda. “Vague and overly broad provisions open the door to silencing peaceful government critics and activists of all sorts.”

Under the bill, organizations would be required to apply for an operating permit, which could be denied “where it is in the public interest to refuse to register the organisation, or … for any other reason that the Board may deem relevant.” The “public interest” is not defined, which would enable the authorities to interpret the requirement broadly and subjectively, the groups said.

Operating without a permit could lead to fines, prosecution, and criminal penalties of between four and eight years in prison for the organization’s directors. The significant punitive dimensions of the law threaten well-established international and regional standards of freedom of association to establish and run independent groups and the organizations’ freedom of expression, the groups said.

“Criminalizing behavior that is inherently legitimate guts the very essence of the right to freedom of association,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The possibility of long prison terms for carrying out civic work without a permit should be scrapped, along with many other provisions.”

Uganda’s 2010 National Non-governmental Organisations Policy, the product of lengthy negotiations between the government and leaders of independent groups, was an important step forward in working to address overbearing government regulatory oversight in Uganda, the groups said. Respect for fundamental human rights, freedom of association, gender equity, and “[d]ignity, mutual respect and trust underpinned by open dialogue, transparency and accountability” are specifically stated as the core values of that policy. While the new bill’s stated objectives are to provide an enabling environment for nongovernmental organizations, its provisions clearly would have the opposite effect, the groups said.

Another troubling provision of the bill would allow the board to revoke a permit for nearly any reason – “if in the opinion of the Board, it is in the public interest to do so.” It would permit an officer of the board to inspect the premises of an organization and request any information “at any reasonable time.” The lack of specificity about advance notification means that board officials or those they authorize would have free rein to enter a group’s premises at any point, question staff, and copy or seize documents, all tactics more commonly reserved for a criminal investigation, Chapter Four Uganda and Human Rights Watch said.

The bill codifies a list of broad and vaguely worded “special obligations” of nongovernmental organizations, including a requirement to “not engage in any act which is prejudicial to the security of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda.”

The board could also dissolve an organization for several reasons, including any “reason the Board considers it necessary, in the public interest.” The only appeal would be to the internal affairs minister, who would oversee the board and appoint its members, with the approval of the cabinet of ministers. The bill contains no provisions for judicial oversight or a way to challenge its decisions in court, leaving groups without a clear remedy in cases of conflict with the board.

A large number – perhaps thousands – of nongovernmental organizations operate in Uganda. The government of President Yoweri Museveni, now in his 30th year of power, allows latitude for some groups, particularly those involved in service delivery. But groups working on oil transparency, human rights, land, governance, corruption, and other sensitive issues have had an increasingly difficult time both carrying out their work and advocating change in public forums, Human Rights Watch found. Museveni is his party’s sole presidential candidate in elections scheduled for early 2016.

“Uganda’s government has put increased pressure on independent groups, particularly if they might be seen as infringing on the political and financial interests of officials,” Burnett said. “Independent groups should have space to conduct research and take part in policy debates without fear of reprisals such as unfettered inspections, losing their registration, or being dissolved, without recourse to the courts.”

The current legal regime expressly mandates that the National Board for Non-governmental Organisations include officials from the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), the government’s main domestic intelligence agency, and the External Security Organisation (ESO), the external intelligence agency. Leaders of independent groups pointed out in 2011 that the presence on the board of officials from ISO and ESO – both of which report directly to the president and have been alleged to be involved in unlawful treatment of civilians – indicated that regulation of independent groups was “premised on a narrow security and control objective rather than development considerations.”

While ISO and ESO officials are no longer specifically mandated membership on the board in the proposed bill, the minister could still appoint such officials. Most problematic, the new bill retains the current system under which resident district commissioners, who are in every district throughout the country, and are appointed directly by the president, would chair the district and sub-county committees on nongovernmental organizations. District and sub-country officials working for ISO would be specifically required to serve on such committees, maintaining the implicit assumption that the operations of nongovernmental groups are a potential threat to district or national security.

In April 2009 eight organizations challenged Uganda’s current laws regulating organizations before the Constitutional Court. They contended that some provisions are inconsistent with the constitution, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the East African Community Treaty. The Court heard the case in February 2014 but no ruling has been issued.

The ICCPR, to which Uganda is a party, does allow for some narrow restrictions on the right to freedom of association that are necessary for the protection of “national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals,” but these restrictions are subjected to a rigorous test. The terms “national security” and “public safety” would, for example, have to refer to a situation involving immediate and violent threat to the entire nation.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Banjul Charter) guarantees an individual the right to free association “provided that he abides by the law.” The African Commission on Human Rights has made clear that the charter does not allow governments to “enact provisions which would limit the exercise of this Freedom” and that any regulation on the exercise of freedom of association “should be consistent with States’ obligations under the African Charter.” The African Commission has also established a Study Group on Freedom of Association and has criticized restrictive provisions on recent laws regulating nongovernmental organizations, such as in Kenya.

“Uganda’s development partners and African regional bodies and indeed any government that supports civil society worldwide should vigorously object to this bill,” Opiyo said. “The run-up to the 2016 elections is a time to encourage divergent views, not clamp down on them.”