Uganda: NGOs State Position On Repressive NGO Bill, 2015

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Civil society activists demonstrate in Nairobi against a proposed repressive NGO law in a growing global trend to stifle activism. (Photo credit: Evans Habil/Nation Media Group)

(May 18th, 2015 / Kampala, Uganda)

The gazetted Non-Governmental Organizations Bill, 2015 is a perpetuation of systemic repressive laws crafted to curtail civic spaces, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs in Uganda have said today while releasing the CSO Position Paper on the NGO Bill). Although the proposed Bill contains some progressive provisions, most of it requires reconsideration lest they curtail people’s right to freedoms of association, expression and assembly. 

The Bill expressly seeks to grant the NGO Board sweeping powers to restrict, obstruct, and criminalise legitimate work of non-governmental organizations. These blanket powers are veiled in the spirit of the Bill and the overly broad provisions littered all over the law.

“A closer inspection of the proposed bill reveals that it is a roll-back on the Constitution and major human rights guarantees and its intentions are largely to control rather than facilitate the NGO sector” (observed the CSOs in a Position Paper released today). “[T]he overall intent of the law is negative" and “as long as this remains, everything else that follows is unlikely to be progressive.”

The proposed bill seeks to criminalize civic activities by reserving severe penal sanctions of heavy fines and prison sentences for directors and staff of organizations. Among others, it criminalizes “operating without a permit,” or any acts which contravene “any provision of this Act.” In relation to these criminal provisions, the bill seeks to smuggle police's duty of investigating cases and DPP's power to prosecute them to the duties of staff at the NGO Board secretariat.

The bill further grants arbitrary disciplinary powers to the NGO Board to expressly suspend permits, black list, expose affected organisations to the public, "any other disciplinary action that the Board may deem fit", and ultimately provide for involuntary dissolution of an organisation "by order of the Board". The Bill provides for no judicial oversight to check the exercise of these troubling unconstitutional powers.

"The bill is littered with broad and vaguely worded provisions which open the door to silence peaceful government critics and activists" (the independent organizations said). "Provisions such as 'public interest,' 'opinion of the board,' 'at any reasonable time' violate the principles which instruct establishment of limitations to the freedom of association" (said organizations).

Under the bill, organisations will be denied operating permits "where it is in the public interest to refuse to register the organisation, or ... for any other reason that the Board may deem relevant." Under the ambiguous "special obligations", the bill further instructs organisations "not to engage in any activity which is ... contrary to the dignity of the people of Uganda" and after registration, they must "cooperate" with local councils in the areas of operations. "This raises questions on the principle of autonomy" (the independent groups stressed). The NGO Board can subjectively interprete these provisions to deny a group registration status for virtually any reason.

This is an affront on the freedom to associate considering that the same bill provides for mandatory registration and no organisation is to "operate in Uganda, unless it has been duly registered by the Board."

Another troubling provision in the bill is an attempt to create dual liability for actions of duly registered independent organisations and yet move to shield NGO Board staff from personal liability. "The legal principle of requiring associations ... to register and acquire legal status is anchored on the legal dividend of protection of individuals from personal liability" (the independent organisations said).

The general troubling trend of viewing non-governmental organisations as a security threat is constantly spread throughout the bill. The bill seeks to have security agents permanently chair and retain seats in the district and subcounty committees. At district level, the bill provides permanent chairperson status to the RDC who is to work with a DISO in the same committee. At subcounty level, RDC retains permanent chairperson status and a permanent seat member in the committee is also reserved for the GISO. It should be noted that these are security agents and are not technical officers who would be better placed to enable the work of independent groups.

The spirit and letter of the proposed bill negates the spirit of mutual respect & trust and respect for fundamental human rights as espoused by the 2010 NGO Policy.

The Constitution of Uganda and the ICCPR allow for limitations to these fundamental freedoms but such must be vigorously subjected to the principles of legality, non-discrimination, the necessity in a democratic society, and must exist to serve a legitimate aim. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights expressly instructs that any regulation in regard to exercise of freedom of association "should be consistent with the States' obligations under the African Charter."

Conclusions and Recommendations

1. We do acknowledge the different efforts by the NGO Board to consult NGOs on the NGO law making process. We are however concerned that the bill they have come up with does not represent evidence of these efforts.

2. Overall, this bill is a reversal of the spirit of complementarity and collaboration that the NGO Board together with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and other departments of government have been championing with the NGOs. We thus call upon the government to withdraw this bill and significantly revise it taking into consideration the concerns raised by NGOs as the key stakeholders in this law.

3. Parliament should desist from passing this bill into law. The relevant committee in Parliament should conduct thorough consultations before tabling the bill for another reading in Parliament.

4. Parliament working with its Human Rights Committee should subject this bill to the Human Rights checklist that it passed for itself recently, and ensure that the bill is compliant with best practices that Parliament seeks to champion with the checklist.

5. As a sector, we shall challenge through all constitutional means available to us any attempt to pass this bill in its current or even worse form.


Click HERE to access a copy of the CSO Position Paper on the Bill - Analysis.

Click HERE to access a copy of the Clause by Clause matrix from the CSO Position Paper.