BANGLADESH: New NGO Law aims at suppressing independent human rights work

Urgent Appeal

Geneva-Paris, June 18, 2014. The World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, are concerned about the pending adoption of a new Law in Bangladesh reinforcing government control over the work of civil society organisations.

On June 2, 2014, the Government of Bangladesh approved the draft “Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, 2014” at a regular meeting of the Cabinet, which was chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The Bill is due to be placed before the Bangladesh Parliament soon for enactment into law. With the adoption of the Act, the previous Foreign Donations Voluntary Activities Regulation Ordinance, 1978, and the Foreign Contributions Regulation Ordinance, 1982 will be repealed. Although the Government claims the law aims to ensure better transparency and accountability for the use of foreign donations by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the country, it de facto severely restricts freedoms of association by hindering NGOs’ access to funding.

“The absurd effect is that NGOs documenting human rights violations, including torture and enforced disappearances, can be closed arbitrarily by the authorities to use funds for doing so. Bangladesh has a history of abusing funding restrictions to curtail critical human rights work”, said OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock. “Instead of coming clean and lifting those restrictions the Law reinforces government control, including by appointing an administrator that will directly monitor NGOs that receive funding from abroad”, Mr. Staberock added.

Section 3 of the Act stipulates that NGOs will not be allowed to receive foreign donations without prior permission from the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGO-AB) for any project they wish to undertake. NGOs will have to declare to the Government the source of foreign donations and how they will be used. In addition, they will have to be registered with the NGO-AB to undertake such activities, and they will have to renew their registration after 10 years (Section 4).

Importantly, under the Act, the NGO-AB, which is placed under the supervision of the Prime Minister’s Office, has the authority to inspect, monitor and assess the activities of NGOs that receive foreign funding, allowing direct control and surveillance over their activities (Section 10). To this end, the Bill gives all related power to the Director General (DG) of the NGO-AB and its executive administrative officers (the Divisional Commissioners, the Deputy Commissioners and the Upazilla Nirbahi Officers). They will have full control over the activities of NGOs receiving foreign funding, including through regular visits of NGO offices and monthly coordination meetings. In addition, NGOs will not have the right to challenge the decisions of the executive officers before the judiciary. The DG can also unilaterally appoint an administrator to file or oversee a case in order to close down or dissolve any NGO (Section 14).

Moreover, the Act provides for punitive measures in cases of violations of the law, which includes cancellation or suspension of registration and imposition of fines (Section 16).

The Act also prohibits political parties, judges of the Supreme Court, lawmakers, elected local representatives, and government and semi-government employees from receiving foreign donations (Section 5).

The Observatory is concerned that such proposed legislative reforms are contrary to international law regulating the right to freedom of association, as they would establish a set of harsh restrictions towards NGOs, which would go far beyond what is permissible under international law. The right of NGOs to freedom of association is a fundamental and universal right enshrined in numerous international treaties and standards, especially Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Bangladesh has ratified. While this right may be restricted by the Government, especially for purposes of transparency and good governance, any restrictions must always be “prescribed by law” and “necessary in a democratic society”, and respect the primacy of the general interest and the principle of proportionality (Article 22.2 of ICCPR and case-law of the United Nations Human Rights Committee). It should be emphasised that freedom shall remain the rule, while restrictions should always be an exception admissible under the above-mentioned conditions.

“We strongly condemn the above-mentioned law, which is likely to be used against human rights NGOs and activistsby further shrinking the space of civil society organisations working for the defence of human rights in Bangladesh, where defenders and their organisations have been increasingly harassed over the past months”, said FIDH President Karim Lahidji. “Accordingly, we urge the Parliament of Bangladesh not to enact the “Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill, 2014 ”, Mr. Lahidji added.

“Independent human rights work is a fundamental feature of any democratic society and not for profit organisations naturally depend on funding. This is why a right to seek funding is recognised under international law”, Messrs. Staberock and Lahidji concluded.

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