The Non Gov­ern­men­tal Or­ga­ni­za­tions Bill, 2015: a Sum­mary of Key Civil So­ci­ety Con­cerns and Gov­ern­men­t’s Re­sponse

By: PAR­LIA­MENT RE­PORTER

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:

Manda­tory Reg­is­tra­tion

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.

Op­er­at­ing per­mit

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.

“Spe­cial oblig­a­tions”

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.

GOV­ERN­MEN­T’S RE­SPONSE

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