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What if Zimbabwe's NGO bill is signed into law?

April 18, 2023
tags:#Zimbabwe, #anti-NGO law, #democracy
by:Cyril Zenda
The proposed law gives President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government unbridled power to restrict, and even ban, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) whose activities displease it.

In early February, the Zimbabwean parliament passed the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill to the disappointment and apprehension of human rights groups that argue that such a law has no place in a democratic society.

The bill now only awaits the signature of the president to become law. 

The law, which comes as the country gears for elections due later this year, would make it illegal for civil society organisations (CSOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to receive funding from foreign sources and require them to submit reports on all their activities to the government, among a host of other restrictions.

The government of Zimbabwe has always accused CSOs and NGOs of being used as conduits by foreign powers trying to effect regime change.

Human rights groups say this funding clause has the potential of bankrupting the thousands of CSOs and NGOs operating in the country, most of which provide essential services such as food aid, medical assistance, education, training and HIV/Aids programmes, among others, in a country that struggles to provide basic services. 

The Bill’s Ramifications

While on paper the bill appears as a well-intentioned piece of legislation – being enacted to fight money laundering and terrorism – civil society organisations on the ground, knowing the Harare authorities as well as they do, identify sinister motives behind it.

They warn that the bill violates fundamental rights and gives the government unjustifiable control over civil society groups. Their fears are not entirely unjustified. Marauding gangs of ruling ZANU-PF party militia physically attacked many rights activists who, during nation-wide outreach meetings convened to extract citizens’ views on the bill, sought to warn citizens of the dangers inherent in the proposed law.

In a special report published in January 2022, Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) warned that the PVO Bill is an attack against active citizenship as it undermines civic engagement.

The bill gives the Office of the Registrar of PVOs, which is under the control of the executive branch of the government, wide and discretionary powers to interfere in civil society organisations’ governance and activities. PVOs would need the government’s permission to carry out any "material change" in the organisation, including changes to internal management and funding.

Under the proposed law, the Registrar’s Office is given exclusive powers to consider, grant or reject the registration of organisations, with little to no judicial or administrative recourse against such decisions.

ZimRights warned that many PVOs currently operating lawfully would not be able to continue their work under the impending law unless they meet the new requirements. The Registrar will have the power to designate any PVO as "high risk" or "vulnerable" to terrorism abuse following a non-transparent risk assessment. That would allow the office to revoke their registration or replace their leadership.

Additionally, the new bill would include harsh penalties, ranging from heavy fines to imprisonment, for administrative offences related to the registration of PVOs.

Importantly, the bill contains provisions that allow for the banning of civil society organisations from "engaging in political activities," a broad and vague concept that could potentially encompass legitimate human rights activities.

'The Bill is Very Concerning'

Musa Kika, executive director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, told FairPlanet that members of Zimbabwean civil society are concerned about the potential effect of the law on their legitimate activities. 

"The bill has many criminal and civil penalties, meaning it effectively criminalises civil society work in the country," Kika told FairPlanet in an interview, listing a slew of issues with the proposed law.

Farai Maguwu, the director of the Centre for Natural Resources Governance (NGRG), an NGO that plays a watchdog role mainly in Zimbabwe’s extractives sector, also expressed grave concerns over the pending promulgation of the law.

"The expressed purpose of the bill is very concerning, as CSOs have been threatened with closure even before it has become law," Maguwu told FairPlanet.

His Centre is highly unpopular with the Harare authorities due to the role it plays in exposing the looting of the country’s natural resources, the eviction of citizens from their ancestral lands and the mistreatment of locals by Chinese investors, among other things. 

"Ruling party [ZANU-PF] officials have gone a step further to single out some organisations which they say will no longer be operational once the bill becomes law, especially those in human rights, democracy, governance and transparency," Maguwu added.

Efforts to stop the bill

Resistance to the bill has been on-going since it was first introduced in parliament in 2021. Members of Zimbabwean civil society have campaigned against it despite being verbally or physically attacked regularly by members of the ruling ZANU-PF party.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT-FIDH) in a statement released jointly with the Citizens in Action Southern Africa (CIASA), a regional human rights group, noted that these attacks were systematic and well-coordinated.

"The Observatory underlines that the public hearings on the amendment of the PVO Act were systematically targeted and disrupted by suspected ruling party militants, who verbally abused and in other cases violently assaulted anyone raising concerns about the content of the new law amid the acquiescence of the police forces," the statement reads.

"The Observatory and CIASA recall that these attacks are not isolated incidents. Ruling party militants have been harassing opponents to the amendment since it was gazetted in 2021."

President Urged To Reject The Bill

After both houses of parliament that are dominated by the ZANU-PF passed the bill, the resistance campaign has shifted to pressuring President Mnangagwa not to sign the bill into law. 

"The Observatory urges the President of Zimbabwe to reject to sign the PVO Amendment Bill into law as it would impose undue restrictions on civic space in the country. The Observatory urges the government of Zimbabwe to engage in dialogue with civil society actors and promote an enabling environment for them."

The United Nations has also expressed concern over the bill with its experts expressing their concerns over the imminent adoption of the text, warning that "the restrictions contained therein will have a chilling effect on civil society organisations - particularly dissenting voices. By enacting this legislation, authorities would effectively be closing an already shrinking civic space."

Four UN Special Rapporteurs have also shared their concerns over the bill.

Violating Regional And International Conventions, Treaties

In its analysis of the proposed law, Veritas, a Zimbabwe-based legal and legislative watchdog, concluded that the bill violates not only the country’s constitution, but also numerous regional and international conventions, treaties and agreements to which Zimbabwe is a party.

Among these treaties, conventions and agreements are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR), the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections and Election Observation and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

"From this analysis it is clear that the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill is not only unconstitutional but it also violates regional and international conventions, treaties and agreements which Zimbabwe, as a party, has pledged to uphold," noted Veritas in its commentary.

A way forward

With Parliament having passed the bill, there is now very little CSOs can do other than lobbying the international community to put pressure on President Mnangagwa not to sign the bill into law.

But Kika of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum said that in the event that the president does proceed to sign it, the law is certain to become subject of court challenges.

"Only Parliament can undo it or the court of law can declare it unconstitutional. […] This can be done when the time comes [...] I am sure there are many individuals and CSOs that are prepared to challenge the constitutionality of the law. We have always maintained that many provisions of the bill are unconstitutional."

The PVO Amendment Bill is not the first attempt by the Zimbabwean authorities to regulate the NGO sector.

The first one was made in 2004 through the ‘Non-Governmental Organization Bill.’ It was passed by parliament but never signed into law by former president Robert Mugabe due to pressure placed on him by the UN and other international bodies.

Image by VAfrica.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
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Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
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The law would make it illegal for civil society organisations (CSOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to receive funding from foreign sources and require them to submit reports on all their activities to the government, among a host of other restrictions.
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The PVO Amendment Bill is not the first attempt by the Zimbabwean authorities to regulate NGO sector.
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