Open Letter to Mrs. Begum Khalida Zia, Prime Minister of Bangladesh

23/04/2004
Open Letter

Dear Mrs. Begum Khalida Zia,

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint
Programme of FIDH and OMCT, wishes to express its deepest concern
about the proposed Amendment Bill to the Foreign Donations (Voluntary
Activities) Regulations Ordinance (1978) in Bangladesh. The Amendment
Bill, in its current form, presents a serious threat to the
independence of NGOs, most notably of human rights NGOs. The
Observatory thinks that it constitutes an attempt to place NGOs under
strict political control.

While agreeing with the principle of an administrative system for NGO
registration, the Observatory strongly opposes any legislation which
might jeopardise freedoms of expression and of association:
unfortunately, this seems to be exactly the hidden purpose of the
Amendment Bill. The declarations of a high ranking official of the
NGO Affairs Bureau, during an interview with an FIDH delegation
during the first week of April, 2004, did nothing to allay our fears.
The official explicitly supported and justified the draft bill. In
addition, the human rights record of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party
(BNP) government to date does not bode well for human rights
defenders in general.

The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulations Ordinance
was adopted in 1978 under the rule of General Zia Ur-Rahman, and
presents in its current version significant limitations to freedoms
of expression and association, notably through its sections 3
("Regulation of voluntary activity") and 4 ("Power of inspection").
Further, the authorities have issued various circular decrees (most
importantly Circular 1993, "Paripatra" section), which impose more
restrictions on NGOs.

The Observatory believes that such a text should be reformed in order
to comply with Bangladesh’s obligations under international human
rights law, and in particular with the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Bangladesh.

The Observatory is particularly concern about the prohibition of
"political activity" included in the proposed Bill. According to
section 2, sub-section (g): " ’political activity’ (...) includes any
activity which may be interpreted as political, or may affect
politics, or such other activities which may be interpreted to be
detrimental to national independence, sovereignty, culture, ethnic
and religious sentiment (...)"

This section fails to provide precise definitions and criteria as to
what activities can be perceived as "detrimental to national
independence", and fails to offer any guarantee that legitimate NGO
activities, especially in the field of human rights, will not come
under attack by the authorities. Any activity critical of the
government might come under the scope of the law, and as such be
prohibited.

Such a provision would clearly violate the UN Declaration on human
Rights Defenders, adopted by the General Assembly of the United
Nations on December 9, 1998. According to Article 8 para 2 "the
right, individually and in association with others, to submit to
governmental bodies and agencies and organizations concerned with
public affairs criticism and proposals for improving their
functioning and to draw attention to any aspect of their work that
may hinder or impede the promotion, protection and realization of
human rights and fundamental freedoms". Further, the Observatory
thinks that the proposed wording goes beyond the permissible
restrictions to freedoms of expression and association provided in
Article 19 para 3 and Article 22 para 2 of the ICCPR.

In addition, the lack of precision as to what would be deemed
"detrimental to (...) religious sentiment" reinforces apprehensions
that women’s groups, or organisations defending freedom of religion,
might be undermined in their activities.

The Observatory is also concerned about the proposed provision
(Section 6, sub section 4) allowing the authorities to remove the
Chief Executive of an organisation if the
government "is satisfied that the Chief Executive (...) has been
responsible for any irregularity in respect of its funds or for any
mal-administration in the conduct of its
affairs, (...) or has caused the organisation to be involved in any
political activity, or any activity influencing politics directly".

Such a provision will grant the government the power to interfere
with internal NGO management, especially when coupled with
(i) the new definition of "irregularity" and "mal-administration" (2,
e and f) and
(ii) the power to dissolve a NGO and liquidate its assets as provided
in the proposed Bill (6, 3, g).

The Observatory believes that the dangers of having a government
regulate the internal affairs of NGOs far outweigh the problems
caused by dysfunctional organisations. In
effect, such a provision would simply annihilate at its core the
independence of NGOs.

The proposed Amendment Bill also contravenes Articles 1 and 3 of the
UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. Article 1 states that
"Everyone has the right,
individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive
for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental
freedoms at the national and
international levels ". Article 3 specifies that domestic legislative
framework within which the activities of promotion, protection and
effective realisation of human rights take
place should be consistent with the Charter of the United Nations and
other international obligations of the State in the field of human
rights.

Furthermore, the Observatory wishes to express its dismay at the lack
of transparency of the whole process of adoption of the proposed
Bill: no sufficient consultation has
been undertaken with Bangladeshi NGOs, particularly with human rights
NGOs, although these might be most directly affected by the Amendment
Bill. Such opaque
procedure further reinforces our concerns.

The Observatory considers the proposed amendment Bill an attempt to
stifle civil society and to silence human rights defenders. The
proposed Amendment Bill definitely
represents a move in the wrong direction - that of an increasingly
authoritarian hand of government weighing over non-governmental
bodies. The Observatory underline that a
free, independent and vibrant civil society is vital to any
democracy, and to any fair and sustainable development process. The
key role of a pluralistic civil society has been emphasised in a
number of international instruments, and notably in the Vienna
Declaration and Programme of Action (1993).

We consequently urge you to withdraw the proposed amendment Bill,

We thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely yours,

Sidiki KABA
President of FIDH

Eric SOTTAS
Director of OMCT

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