The Ugandan Parliament is due to debate a controversial bill brought by government aimed at clipping the influence of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) as the country gears up for the 2016 general elections.
While government argues that the Non-Governmental Organizations Registration (Amendment) Bill 2013 seeks to expand government powers to monitor NGO work, its opponents argue that it is intended to erode civil liberties and entrench political intolerance ahead of the general elections.
The new bill would grant the internal affairs minister and the National Board for NGO broad powers to supervise, approve, inspect, and dissolve all nongovernmental organizations and community based organizations, and would impose severe criminal penalties for violations.
Internal Affairs minister Gen. Aronda Nyakairima who presented the bill before parliament said the bill is a response to some NGOs’ “subversive methods of work and activities which undermine accountability and transparency in the sector”.
“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,” said Nicholas Opiyo, executive director of Chapter Four Uganda, said in a statement issued here on April 20.
Under the bill, 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 organization, or .. for any other reason that the Board may deem relevant.”
Activists argue that “public interest” is not defined, which would enable the authorities to interpret the requirement broadly and subjectively.
“Vague and overly broad provisions open the door to silencing peaceful government critics and activists of all sorts,” Opio added.
According to the bill, 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. Activists argue that the 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.
In April 2009 eight NGOs challenged Uganda’s current laws regulating organizations before the Constitutional Court. They contended that some provisions are inconsistent with the country’s Constitution, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the East African Community Treaty. The Court heard the case in February 2014 but no ruling has been issued.
The ICCPR, to which Uganda is a party, does allow for some narrow restrictions on the right to freedom of association that are necessary for the protection of “national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals,” but these restrictions are subjected to a rigorous test. The terms “national security” and “public safety” would, for example, have to refer to a situation involving immediate and violent threat to the entire nation.
“Uganda’s development partners and African regional bodies and indeed any government that supports civil society worldwide should vigorously object to this bill,” Opiyo said. “The run-up to the 2016 elections is a time to encourage divergent views, not clamp down on them.”
Rather than vehemently opposing the bill, the Uganda National NGO Forum, a national platform for NGOs in Uganda and its counterpart Human Rights Network (HURINET) in a meeting on April 27 laid strategies to lobby Parliament when discussions on the bill start.
“This could be an opportunity to build a strong movement to demand for civil liberties and social justice in constrained operating space,” said Richard Ssewakiryanga, Executive Director, Uganda National NGO Forum.
“Let us not forget that this bill concerns our core business and survival,” indicated Mr. Muhammed Ndifuna, the Executive Director, HURINET. Enditem