We, the undersigned Civil Society Organisations (CSOs)1 express our concern in respect of the Private Voluntary Organizations Amendment Bill, which was gazetted on November 5, 2021. The Bill seeks to amend the Private Voluntary Organizations Act [Chapter 17:05]. We are concerned that in its current form the Bill criminalises the work of civil society, restricts civic space and will ultimately have a negative impact on the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans who, due to the deteriorating political, social and economic situation prevailing in the country have had to rely on the work of CSOs for inter-alia humanitarian aid and holding the government accountable for human rights abuses, governance and accountability.
While one of the objectives of the Bill is to ensure that the country is compliant with the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) recommendations by inter-alia ensuring that not non-profit organisations are not misused by terrorist organisations, an analysis of the Bill shows that, rather than complying with recommendations, this legislation is crafted with the view of clamping down on civic space and infringe on constitutionally guaranteed rights such as the right to association, right to privacy and right to freedom of expression. Specifically, as the coalition of the undersigned CSOs, we are of the view that the Bill is retrogressive and is in violation of international human rights standards which Zimbabwe is a signatory to, on the following parameters;
Vagueness and open to possible abuse by authorities
Some sections of the Bill are vague and open to different interpretations and abuse. For example, clause 2 which gives the Minister vast powers to censor institutions deemed ‘to be at high risk of or vulnerable to misuse by terrorist organizations” is problematic. The definition of ‘high risk PVO’ is left to the discretion of the Minister. The Minister may use this to prescribe additional or special requirements, obligations, or measures, not consistent with this Act. This leaves CSOs vulnerable to sporadic and arbitrary requirements from the Minister at any time, after being unceremoniously termed a high risk PVO. The Bill also prohibits PVOs from “political involvement”, which is an overly broad and vague term that has the potential of being misused to target and persecute civil society leaders, pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders (including citizens seen participating in CSO gatherings).
Excessive involvement of Executive in PVO administration
Clause 7 of the Bill gives the Minister extensive powers to unilaterally suspend or remove the executive committees of PVOs. The ministerial prerogative to appoint one or more persons of his/her choice as trustees to run the affairs of PVOs, is an excessive interference in the administration of PVOs. We view this provision as compromising the ability of organisations to choose its own leadership and independent function without any influence from the government. This provision is also subject to abuse by the Minister. The Minister may appoint people who have no interest in advancing the work of PVOs but just there to further the Minister’s interest. This excessive involvement of the Executive could result in NGOs and CSOs funds being expropriated by the government under the guise of complying with provisions of the FATF. There is a real risk that the expropriation of the funds can be done without due process of the law and without compensation. Thus, possibly negatively impacting on humanitarian and developmental aid to citizens.
Tedious registration framework
The Bill entails that, entities registered as trusts will also be required to register under the PVO Act, which will mean some designated organisations will become unlawful entities unless they register under the new law. As the registrar of PVOs will be reporting to the Office of the President, the threat of deregistration could affect the ability of CSOs to speak out freely. Clause 6 obligates a PVO to reregister or amend its registration in circumstances such as change in ownership of the PVO, amendment of the Constitution or variation of the capacity of the PVO. This is a form of micro-management as PVOs must report these internal operations such as institutional management changes to the government. This is unnecessary red tape which is intrusive and prone to abuse by the government to interfere with the internal management and governance matters of PVOs.
Prohibition against taking part in politics
Clause 5 of the Bill is set to limits a PVOs’ supporting or opposing any political party or candidate in a presidential, parliamentary, or local government election by making it criminal to engage in political activity. In one way or the other, CSOs in Zimbabwe are involved in promoting and protecting civil and political rights guaranteed under the country’s Constitution and major international instruments which Zimbabwe has signed and ratified. The government can use this provision to arrest members of CSOs and any citizens deemed to be voicing out against the ruling party, especially ahead of the 2023 general elections. This gives rise to authoritarianism and violates fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution such as freedom of assembly and association (section 58), freedom of conscience (section 60) and political rights (section 67). Clause 5 closes civic space for all non-profit organisations, primarily those in the fields of governance, elections, political participation, human rights, media freedom and democracy.
We therefore make the following recommendations to the authorities and relevant stakeholders:
- The PVO Amendment Bill must be shelved until it meets local, regional, and international standards on human rights and best practices for the exercise of freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to privacy. To this end, citizens should reject the Bill.
- The drafting of any amendment that has the potential of curtailing the rights of CSOs and citizens alike should come after a wide-ranging consultative process. This process should be consultative and reflective of the views of a wide spectrum of Zimbabwean society.
- The PVO Amendment Bill must be subjected to constitutional alignment exercise as it contravenes some material rights in an open, democratic, and transparent society. The human rights agenda underpinning the 2013 Constitution must filter and permeate through the PVO regulatory framework. As such, the foundational values, principles and fundamental rights and freedoms in the Constitution must be reflected in the regulatory framework for the CSO sector.
- Key terms such as “high risk” and ‘political interference’ must be clearly defined, to avoid vagueness and ambiguity that result in abuse of CSOs.
- Alternative ways of preventing money laundering and financial terrorism which do not infringe on civil society space should be considered.
Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association
Community Youth Development Trust
Gweru Residents and Ratepayers Association