Zimbabwe: Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill poses serious threats to freedom of association

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Geneva-Paris, March 22, 2022. The Zimbabwean Parliament is discussing an amendment of the Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO) Act that seriously threatens the right to freedom of association in the country. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (World Organisation Against Torture-OMCT, International Federation for Human Rights-FIDH) and Citizens in Action Southern Africa (CIASA) express their deep concern over the negative impact this amendment will have on civic space and strongly condemn the intimidation of human rights defenders opposing it. The Observatory and CIASA urge the Zimbabwean authorities to withdraw the amendment and to refrain from attacking or intimidating all rights defenders.

The Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Amendment Bill, H.B. 10, 2021, on the organisation of associations, which recently was subjected to community-based public hearings across the country, exposes the intention of the Zimbabwean government to provide itself with legal tools to control and ultimately silence civil society.

Should it be adopted, the amended law would provide the government with wide powers to interfere in civil society organisations’ governance and activities. First, the PVOs would need the government’s permission for any “material change” in the organisations, including changes to internal management and funding. Moreover, the government would have the power to designate any PVO as “high risk” or “vulnerable” to terrorism abuse. That would allow them to revoke their registration or even to replace their leadership. Additionally, the new bill would include harsh penalties, including imprisonment, for administrative offences related to the registration of PVOs. Finally, 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 include legitimate human rights activities.

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. On March 1, 2022, in the city of Masvingo, ruling party militants heckled and physically attacked participants raising their voices against the bill. Among those attacked were CIASA members Messrs. Spencer Mutambaneshiri, Alan Moyo and Ms. Priscilla Mafa who were verbally abused, threatened and beaten. Participation in the online hearings taking place at the same time were also obstructed by the increase in the Internet connection prices enacted by the state-controlled provider.

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. On November 24, 2021, human rights defender Mr. Gamuchirai Mukura was physically assaulted and severely injured while participating in a meeting with community members to denounce the consequences of this restrictive legislation in Shonganiso Primary School, in Masvingo.

The Observatory and CIASA express their utmost concern over the restriction to the legitimate activities of civil society and human rights defenders this amendment will have, should it be approved, a concern shared by four UN Special Rapporteurs.

The Observatory and CIASA urge the authorities of Zimbabwe to withdraw this amendment and to ensure that those opposing the bill can voice their legitimate concerns without obstruction or fear of reprisals. The Observatory and CIASA further urge the authorities to protect, respect and promote the right to freedom of association, a right protected by the Zimbabwean Constitution, particularly Article 58, as well as by international human rights instruments to which Zimbabwe is a party, especially Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

Headquartered in Zimbabwe, Citizens in Action Southern Africa (CIASA) works to create and facilitate space for marginalised women and girls to have a collective voice to challenge oppressive systems and structural barriers across Southern Africa and in turn effectively participate in key decision-making processes across the cultural, political, social, environmental, technological and economic spectrum.

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