The Proposed PVO Amendment Bill in Zimbabwe: A Significant Threat to Civic Space

Southern Defenders has today asked the Government of Zimbabwe (GoZ) to withdraw the PVO Amendment Bill that it has proposed for promulgation by Parliament in order to regulate the non-governmental sector working environment.

“Before passing any such legislation and considering its potential impact on the ordinary people as end beneficiaries of the work of NGOs, the GoZ should first initiate an extensive consultation process with civil society as outlined in Chapter 14 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe if it wishes to change the legal framework through which NGOs come into existence and operate in Zimbabwe.”

On Friday 5th November 2021, the GoZ gazetted The PVO Amendment Bill 2021 giving two reasons why it felt compelled to propose such a Bill namely requirements to comply with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations and the need to prohibit NGOs from involvement in politics. The Bill amends the definition of “private voluntary organisation” with a much wider definition which encompasses some categories of organizations that the current PVO Act is not applicable to such as trusts and universitas. This means that these organizations will now be subject to re-registration and to broad control and regulation by the board and the Minister. The Bill allows the Minister to appoint one or more persons as trustees to run the affairs of an NGO for a period not exceeding sixty days if he feels that there is a need for that. The Bill also prohibits PVOs from political involvement or from undertaking any political lobbying whatsoever on behalf of any individual, organisation or political party and it will impose penalties for those PVOs that violate the Act in the form of a fine of level twelve or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year, or both such fine and such imprisonment.

“Any proposed new legislation governing the registration and operations of NGOs must exempt organisations that are already registered under existing valid legal regimes from re-registering. It is wrong to pass NGO legislation or any other legislation for that matter and apply it retrospectively to affect the rights of civil society groups and NGOs that already legally and validly exist in terms of the current laws of the land that look quite adequate in their current for.”

Southern Defenders draws the attention of the GoZ to the Constitution of Zimbabwe which is the supreme law of the land binding on every person, natural or juristic, including the State and all executive, legislative and judicial institutions and agencies of government at every level that imposes a duty that any proposed law, practice, custom or conduct needs to be consistent with the Constitution. The proposed legislation will constrict civic space or impede enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution. In what the Southern Defenders see as an effort to criminalise human rights activism the Bill proposes imposing harsh penalties including jail-time of up to 1 year for NGO Registration framework related perceived offences.

We regrettably see the manipulation of the FATF recommendations as a pretext by the government to attack civil society and contravene a country’s obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and international human rights law to promote universal respect for, and observance of fundamental human rights and freedoms, such as freedom of expression, religion or belief and freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Corlett Letlojane a Southern Defenders board member from South Africa Southern Defenders are concerned that the phrase prohibition from “political involvement” for PVOs is overly broad and vague to have a potential of being misused to target for persecution CSO leaders, pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders and NGOs that may be involved in promoting and protecting civil and political rights that are protected under the Zimbabwean constitution and major international instruments that Zimbabwe has signed and ratified such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“The over broadness and vagueness in the phrase “political involvement” is a breach of the principle of legality in law-making, in that it makes it difficult if not impossible for CSO leaders, human rights defenders, NGOs and pro-democracy activists to know how to regulate their behaviour to avoid falling foul with the law” . “Worded this way the proposed amendment bill potentially criminalises civil society activism, human rights defending and creates a minefield for NGOs. The principle of legality requires that the law is clearly articulated and known in advance and not applied retroactively.”argued Prof Nuvunga.

On FATF recommendations as the basis put forward for the PVO Amendment Bill, Southern Defenders notes that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe issued a Press Statement on 29 September 2021 about the phenomenon of money laundering in Zimbabwe giving a list of the most notorious people and entities on money laundering. The operative portion of the notice read as follows: “The Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) has identified individuals listed hereunder who are abusing mobile telecommunications services and other social media platforms to promote and facilitate illegal foreign exchange transactions and money laundering activities. The FIU has instructed banks, mobile money operators and other financial service providers to identify and freeze any accounts operated by these individuals and, further, to bar them from accessing financial services for a period of two years, with immediate effect.”

Interestingly, no single NGO or civil society activist is on this list of money launderers in Zimbabwe and yet the government is scrambling legislation to overhaul the NGO legislative framework under the guise of implementing FATF recommendations and trying to combat money laundering and financing of terrorism. The The proposed PVO Amendment Bill seems therefore to be for sinister purposes and will pose a significant threat to civic space and be used to persecute targets.

Southern Defenders, therefore, calls on the GoZ to be guided by the constitution of Zimbabwe and international instruments binding on Zimbabwe as well as the UN Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (UN Declaration on HRDS). The GoZ also needs to refer to the Guidelines on Freedom of Assembly and Association by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) in formulating a regulatory environment that promotes an enabling environment for associations to thrive.

Access a more detailed analysis here (430KB PDF)

Source: Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network

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