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Activist Laura Miti holds a placard during a protest against corruption outside the Zambian parliament in Lusaka on September 28, 2018. © 2018 SALIM DAWOOD/AFP via Getty Images

(Johannesburg) – The government of Zambia should take decisive and immediate action to repeal a law that unduly restricts the activities of nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups that operate in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

The law, known as the NGO Act No. 16 of 2009, subjects nongovernmental groups to excessive and unwarranted controls, including by placing them under the authority of a government-dominated NGO Registration Board that has the authority to interfere in these groups’ activities. As opposition leader, President Hakainde Hichilema called the law “draconian and repressive” and pledged: “We are therefore standing with all those calling for the repealing of the Act.” Nearly two years into his term, his administration has not acted to fulfil his promise.

“Independence from government control is an essential ingredient in the functions of civil society and nongovernmental organizations”, said Idriss Ali Nassah, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government of Zambia should repeal the NGO law so that civil society organizations can freely provide critical analysis and checks and balances without the threat of being shut down or denied registration.”

Zambian organizations protested this law when it was enacted. They were concerned about the law’s arbitrary registration procedures, imposed code of conduct, and the requirement to submit annual information about a group’s activities, funders, accounts, and the personal wealth of their officials. The law sets out penalties for noncompliance that range from suspension to revocation of an organization’s registration.

Civil society organizations have warned about the potential harm of such a repressive and restrictive law, especially since a request to register can be turned down on broad and unclear grounds.

Seven Zambian organizations, including Transparency International Zambia, Alliance for Community Action, and the Zambia Council for Social Development, have called on the government of Zambia to speed up the law’s repeal.

“While recognizing the efforts by the Zambian Government to repeal the NGO Act, we are saddened with the slow pace of the process,” those groups said in a statement. The same groups said:

"There is a need to expedite the repeal process so that NGOs continue to play their role effectively. It is common knowledge that as CSOs [civil society organizations] in Zambia we rejected the NGO Act and all the attendant organs. As advocates for good governance and democratization we therefore find these (NGO) laws retrogressive and an assault to the freedoms of association and expression of citizens in the region."

Governments elsewhere in southern Africa have moved to impose highly restrictive laws to contain and restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations and impede free association and assembly.

In Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa is expected to sign into law a bill that would severely restrict civic space and the operations of nongovernmental organizations in the country. This measure, the Private Voluntary Organisation Amendment Act, would allow the Zimbabwean government to cancel the registration of organizations deemed to have “political affiliation” with little to no recourse to judicial review. Already, the authorities have used the existing Private Voluntary Organisation Act to withdraw the registration of hundreds of civil society organizations.

In Mozambique, lawmakers are set to approve a controversial Law on the Creation, Organization, and Operation of Nonprofit Organizations which would permit sweeping governmental control over nongovernmental groups, including the authority to shut an organization down.

Josiah Kalala, of Chapter One Foundation in Lusaka, said the Zambian law “poses an existential threat to NGOs.” He said, “The Act is essentially a tool that can be used by government to control NGOs, and we have been calling on the government to repeal the Act as it restricts the civic space for NGOs and people wishing to associate with NGOs in Zambia.”

President Hichilema should live up to his promise to repeal the restrictive law, Human Rights Watch said. In its present from, the NGO Act contravenes several international human rights treaties that Zambia ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The law is also inconsistent with the African Union’s Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa.

“The very existence of this law is a blot on Zambia’s standing in the region and is against the country’s international human rights commitments,” Nassah said.

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