Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa has vowed to “speedily” sign into law a bill that would severely restrict civic space, the operations of nongovernmental organizations, and the right to freedom of association in the country.
The new law, the Private Voluntary Organisation Amendment Bill, which the parliament and senate have already passed, was necessary, Mnangagwa claimed, to protect and defend the country’s sovereignty from destabilizing foreign interests, and to stop “the turning of a small section of mercenaries in our midst into the proverbial Trojan Horse for attacking our sovereignty, our values and our politics.”
Once signed, provisions of the act would allow the government to cancel the registration of organizations deemed to have “political affiliation” with little to no recourse to judicial review. Actions considered to violate certain provisions of the law could even lead to criminal prosecution, with penalties ranging from heavy fines to imprisonment.
Already, the authorities have used the existing Private Voluntary Organisation Act to deregister several civil society organizations ahead of this year’s general elections, which will be held on a date to be set during the month of July or August.
Domestic and international human rights and civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have urged President Mnangagwa to not sign the bill, as it will further threaten freedom of association in the country and contravene several international human rights instruments that Zimbabwe has ratified. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
United Nations experts echoed this plea, calling on Mnangagwa to reject the bill, warning that “the restrictions contained therein will have a chilling effect on civil society organizations, particularly dissenting voices.”
The African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) should follow suit and urge Mnangagwa not to sign the bill into law. They should also urge the government to reconcile the Private Voluntary Organization Act in its present form with AU and SADC standards, including the African Charter, AU Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, and SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. The credibility of the upcoming elections could hinge on the ability of civil society groups to operate, monitor and report without any fear of deregistration or criminal penalties.