Zambia: A restrictive bill on civil society activities currently under debate in Parliament

Press release

Geneva-Paris, July 20, 2007. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), expresses its deepest concern regarding the submission by the Zambian Government of a controversial bill, aimed at regulating the activities of civil society organisations, to Parliament.

Today, the Zambian Parliament will begin debating the Non-Governmental Organisation bill, which was presented on July 17, 2007 to Parliament for enactment by the Minister of Justice, Mr. George Kunda, who declared that “the government is trying to enhance transparency and accountability among civil society groups” through this bill. He further explained that the objective of the bill was to establish a Board for non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Zambia Congress of NGOs, and to constitute a council for NGOs.

However, the Observatory fears that this bill might be aimed at stifling criticism from civil society - in particular from NGOs - towards the government. Non-governmental organisations are indeed regularly accused by the government of being “politicians using NGOs as a shield”. The Observatory also fears that the introduction of the bill might severely compromise the work and independence of civil society organisations.

As a matter of fact, the bill calls for “the registration and co-ordination of NGOs [including international organisations that have offices in Zambia, so as] to regulate the work, and the area of work of NGOs operating in Zambia”. In addition, if the bill becomes law it would empower the Minister of Home Affairs to form a 10-member board, comprised of government members and two representatives from civil society, which would “receive, discuss and approve the code of conduct [of NGOs], and [...] provide policy guidelines to NGOs for harmonising their activities to the national development plan of Zambia”.

As of now, NGOs are registered by the Registrar of Societies, a quasi-government organisation, but after registration the government has little power to restrain NGOs from voicing political dissent, and any attempt to de-register an NGO usually involves long court battles. In the proposed bill, NGOs will be obliged to register annually. Furthermore, if entered in force, the legislation will enable the government to suspend NGOs that fail to submit quarterly or annual reports or when they misapply funds they receive from the donors.

Chief Government Spokesperson and Information Minister Mike Mulongoti said the bill was designed to make civil society more responsible and accountable in their conduct: “We have democracy to safeguard. We must all stand on one platform - NGOs should not just be asking government to be transparent or accountable to the people, they should also do the same. This is why we have decided, as government, to introduce this new law: it is necessary to have a legal framework to regulate their conduct, because some of them seem to have been set up specifically to oppose the government in everything”, he commented, further stating that “they [the NGOs] want to have a free-for-all atmosphere, when they themselves want government to be accountable. We must stand on the same platform: they should also be held accountable for their conduct and expenditure. After all, even the money they use to fund their activities is taxpayers’ money elsewhere, just like we use Zambian taxpayers’ money”.

The Observatory considers that the adoption of this draft law would blatantly violate regional and international instruments on human rights that guarantee freedom of association, in particular the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1998.

As a consequence, the Observatory urges the Zambian Parliament to reject this bill, which is yet another attempt to clamp down on independent civil society, and calls upon the international community to take all necessary measures to ensure that the Zambian Government conforms, in all circumstances, to its international human rights commitments.

For further information, please contact:

OMCT : Delphine Reculeau, + 00 41 22 809 49 39

FIDH : Gael Grilhot, + 00 33 1 43 55 25 18

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