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Bangladesh: New Law Will Choke Civil Society

Law Allows Arbitrary Closure, Denies Free Expression, Blocks Funding to NGOs

(New York) – The Bangladesh parliament should repeal a new law regulating civil society organizations accepting foreign funds, Human Rights Watch said today. The new law subjects non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to comprehensive and arbitrary government control over their activities, stifling freedom of expression and other rights. Bangladesh’s international donors, who provide critical development assistance, should publicly call for the repeal of the law.

The law, known as the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill 2016 (FDRB), came into effect on October 13, 2016. The law requires all foreign-funded NGOs, a category that describes development, human rights, and many other organizations, to submit virtually all activities for approval to a bureau under the prime minister’s office, without clear criteria for grounds for rejection or a timeframe in which decisions should be rendered. Registration is similarly at the discretion of the bureau, and a last-minute addition to the law makes it an offense for NGOs to criticize the government.

“The Foreign Donations Law is a shocking new initiative by a repressive government to make civil society toe the government line, or risk being arbitrarily shut down,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government claims it is committed to freedom of expression and pluralism, but then passes a law that would make an authoritarian regime proud.”

Human Rights Watch and Bangladeshi NGOs have long expressed concerns about earlier drafts of this law. Among other provisions, the new law:

  • Gives the NGO Affairs Bureau the authority to review proposed projects by NGOs and order them cancelled;
  • Requires prior governmental approval before anyone involved in voluntary activities travels out of the country for purposes connected with work on the project;
  • 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; and
  • Imposes tough sanctions for non-compliance by both organizations and individuals, including fines, disciplinary action and cancellation of registration.

A new element added since the draft law was circulated in 2014 makes “inimical” or “derogatory” remarks against the constitution, the parliament and other governmental bodies an offense. These terms are undefined, and could be used to limit any criticism of the government whatsoever. Any NGO found by the NGO Affairs bureau to have engaged in “inimical” or “derogatory” remarks can have its registration cancelled. Such a law clearly abrogates the rights of free expression which Bangladesh, both through its own constitution and through its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is obligated to protect.

The law is part of a sustained attack on civil society, particularly human rights organizations and other critics of the government. In an October 19 statement Suranjit Sengupta, a leader of the ruling Awami League party, reportedly said that non-governmental organizations have no right to freedom of expression.

The International Centre for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL) has said previously that Bangladeshi procedures regulating NGOs are already plagued by delays, hurdles, non-transparency, and arbitrary decisions.

The law comes during a sustained campaign by the government against political, media, and civil society critics which has led to an effective clampdown on any dissent from within the country itself, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Bangladeshi government should be trying to create a welcoming and encouraging legal environment for NGOs in a manner that accords with international best practices and does not interfere with fundamental rights,” said Adams. “Instead, it is treating NGOs like the enemy within. Requiring prior approval of projects, giving the state-wide discretion to deny projects and foreign funding, requiring approval for travel, and targeting critics are the hallmarks of an authoritarian state – not a democracy.”

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