Lizet Vlamings (FHRI) speaks on Uganda's restrictive NGO Bill

Lizet Vlamings is a researcher with expertise in human rights and public health. Lizet has been working with the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) for the past 3 years on monitoring human rights violations and conducting legislative advocacy in Uganda.
 
The Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) is an independent, non-governmental, non-partisan and not-for-profit human rights advocacy organization established in 1991. The organization seeks to enhance knowledge, respect and observance of human rights, and promote exchange of information and best practices through training, education, research, legislative advocacy and strategic partnerships in Uganda. The organization has Observer Status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, is a member of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and is affiliated to the International Federation of Human Rights Defenders, (FIDH

1. What is the current status of the Non-Governmental Organisations Bill (2015) that is being considered?
The Non-Governmental Organisations Bill, 2015 was published in the Uganda Gazette No. 18 Vol. CVIII on 10th April 2015, and is intended to repeal the NonGovernmental Organisations Registration Act, Cap. 113 (as amended in 2006). The Bill was tabled in Parliament on 13th May 2015, and thereafter referred to the parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs. At this stage, the committee tasked with scrutinising the bill normally invites the public to present views on the  Bill. The Committee has not started receiving submissions from the public on the NGO Bill yet, but has shown intent to invite civil society stakeholders as soon as deliberations on the Bill start.

2. What impact will the Bill have on civil society activities in Uganda?
The stated objectives of the Bill imply that it aims to strengthen the NGO sector and NGO Board that oversees the registration and monitoring of NGOs. It states the intent to strengthen and promote the capacity of NGOs and their mutual partnership with government, and provide a conducive and enabling environment for the NGO sector. However, a more thorough assessment of the provisions in the NGO Bill suggests that it aims to control and restrict NGOs rather than facilitate them. The Bill, for instance, provides the NGO Board – appointed by the Minister of Internal Affairs, without civil society representation – wide discretionary powers to reject registrations, impose hefty criminal sanctions and dissolve registered organisations on arbitrary grounds, all without judicial oversight.

If the NGO Bill is enacted in its current form it will greatly undermine the independence and effectiveness of the NGO sector in Uganda. It will likely lead to increased self-censorship of NGOs engaged in advocacy work, and reduce the ability of the NGO sector to hold government accountable.

3. How is civil society reacting to the Bill?
As civil society, we welcome an amendment to the existing NGO law because even in its current form, the legislation is highly restrictive. Considering, however, that the proposed Bill will likely lead to a narrowing of NGOs’ operating space, civil society has expressed their concerns widely.

Civil society organisations and networks across the country have joined forces to sensitise the government, media and wider public on the implications of the Bill and urge Parliament not to pass the Bill in its current form. For this purpose, civil society, under the auspices of the Uganda National NGO Forum, has published a common position paper and clause-by-clause analysis of the NGO Bill.

As part of this joint effort, the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) is sensitising relevant parliamentary committees on the human rights implications of the Bill and advocating Parliament not pass the Bill in its current form. On 13th May 2015, FHRI presented a memorandum on the NGO Bill before the Standing Committee on Human Rights Affairs of Parliament. This Committee is mandated to scrutinise all bills in Parliament on possible human rights implications and subject bills to a human rights checklist. The next step being undertaken by FHRI is making a joint presentation on the Bill together with several key civil society stakeholders before the parliamentary Committee of Defence and Internal Affairs tasked with scrutinising the Bill for debate in Parliament.

4. How would you describe the overall environment for civil society in Uganda?
Despite the ratification of the ICCPR and ACHPR and provision of civic space safeguards in the Constitution, Uganda’s civil society space has been narrowing steadily. Organisations and civil society activists speaking out on governance issues are particularly restricted in their operations, due to harassment and arbitrary arrests, among others.

It is also important to place this NGO Bill in the wider legislative trend, including the passing of the Public Order Management Act, 2013, the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014, the Anti-Pornography Act, 2014, and the proposed Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Bill, 2015. These laws represent a reversal in the successes the country has attained in protecting and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms, and form an arsenal of punitive laws to curtail the expression of democratic opposition.

5. What support can regional and international civil society groups provide to colleagues in Uganda?
To protect and expand civic space in the country, it is important that regional and international civil society groups work together with civil society organisations in Uganda. This synergy should be used to strengthen existing advocacy efforts geared towards enhancing government’s commitment to safeguard human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is essential that we raise awareness on the increasingly narrow civic space not only in Uganda, but worldwide to build momentum for the purpose of reversing this trend.



 

 

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