The Non Governmental Organizations Bill, 2015: a Summary of Key Civil Society Concerns and Government’s Response
On April 10, The Government of Uganda on April 10, 2015 published in the official gazette the Non-governmental Organisations (NGO) Bill, 2015. The objective of the bill is to provide for the registration of Non Government organizations, provide for monitoring of non government organizations and to establish a board for these purposes among others. This bill is yet to be tabled on the floor of Parliament for debate.
Civil society organizational forms in Uganda include non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs). The existing primary regulatory instruments are the Non Governmental Organizations (Amendment) Act 2006 and the NGO Registration Regulations, SI 113-1, 1990. For most NGOs, there are growing fears of erosion of civil liberties and entrenchment of political intolerance in Uganda if the bill is passed in its current form. According to Nicholas Opiyo, executive director of Chapter Four 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,” (Daily Monitor, April 21, 2015)
Below is a summary of the key areas of concern of the bill raised by Human Rights Watch and the International Centre for Non-Profit Law:
Section 31(1) of the Bill requires all non-governmental organizations, including all “private voluntary groupings of individuals” to formally register with the state. This violates the freedom of association, which protects the right of individuals to act collectively with or without a formal legal relationship with the state.
The Bill includes an additional requirement for an operating permit which is subject to whatever conditions the NGO Board deems “fit” and is issued for an unspecified period of time for an unspecified annual fee. 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. This opens the door to inequitable and arbitrary applications of the law.
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. “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.” 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 Bill includes several “special obligation” of NGOs, including the obligation to be “co-operate” with local officials. 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 vagueness of these special obligations violates international law’s requirement for sufficient specificity within the law; and the content of these obligations violate international law’s protection of the freedoms of expression and association.
Excessive discretion and oversight powers
The Bill grants the NGO Board the ability to conduct nonconsensual inspections and unannounced information requests and creates monitoring committees at the local level to further extend the NGO Board’s oversight capacities. The extraordinary reach of the supervisory powers granted to the NGO Board, and by extension the new monitoring committees, over the internal affairs of NGOs violates international law’s requirement that restrictions on the freedom of association be clearly defined, necessary towards a legitimate government aim, and proportionate.
Disproportionate disciplinary measures and criminal penalties
The draft law criminalizes any violation of the Bill or the terms of an organization’s operating permit, and subjects violators to fines and up to eight years in prison depending on the offence committed. The law imposes a series of disciplinary measures, such as “black listing” and “exposure of the affected organisation to the public.” Moreover, the draft law allows the NGO Board to dissolve an organization if the Board considers dissolution “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.
In a government response to the concerns raised, Mr. Ofwono Opondo, the Executive Director of the Uganda Media Centre stated that: “Let us be reminded that Uganda already has an NGO Act which is being updated through this amendment. There is no evidence so far that NGOs, CBOs & CSOs have been unfairly or unjustly dissolved or their activities interfered with except where some have cheated the public.
Uganda needs the law revised and strengthened to protect the public especially because of the changing times of criminality. Some NGOs have been found to be involved in extortion of money from the public, financial fraud, money laundering and human trafficking especially of vulnerable children.
Apart from the criticism from HRW, government would appreciate helpful comments to improve the Bill.
Let Human Rights Watch write specific proposals either to the minister before the Bill is taken to the committee of parliament. NGOs including HRW should not pretend to be the only guarantors of the rights of Ugandans. That responsibility and obligations rests with the government of Uganda. NGOs do not enjoy diplomatic immunity, and thus are subject to written down rules and regulations.”
Human Rights Watch is an independent, international organization that defends the rights of people worldwide. For Human Rights Watch’s full press release, click here
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) is an international not-for-profit organization that facilitates and supports the development of an enabling environment for civil society and civic participation. For the full analysis of the bill, click here