Uganda: Over 11,500 NGOs Face Deregistration If NGO Bill Is Not Amended

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Committee hearing in progress during the NGO Bill public hearing at Parliament on June 25th, 2015

On June 25th, the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Defense and Internal Affairs, Hon. Namugwanya Benny Bugembe revealed during the public hearing on the NGO Bill, 2015 that members of the public had only two weeks to provide input on the controversial NGO Bill for consideration. This means that members of the public have only a couple of days left to do so.

After this period, the committee is expected to move to table a report on the bill before Parliament to pave way for the passing of the NGO Bill, 2015. Government remains resolute to rush this bill to ensure that it is passed before the house goes on recess; which is only one month and a few days away.

Activists, members of the civil society both local and international, and the UN through the established mechanisms have raised concern over the contents of the proposed bill and are on record to have urged Parliament to provide for fair, thorough, and meaningful consultations on the bill before it is tabled for a vote.

Central to this are Uganda's international commitments in terms of the protection of fundamental freedoms of association and expression, the Bill of rights as provided in the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, and the Human Rights Checklist of Parliament.

Following the half-day public hearing on the bill at Parliament on June 25th, NGO leaders and members of the parliamentary committee convened in Entebbe for a 2-day retreat to discuss the troubling provisions of the bill.

The Executive Director of Uganda National NGO Forum, Richard Ssewakiryanga delivered a presentation on the history, value and contributions of civil society in Uganda to enable Members of Parliament appreciate the role played by NGOs in service delivery and promotion of good governance.

Chapter Four Uganda's Nicholas Opiyo then presented the international response on the bill. He noted that the proposed bill places Uganda on track of joining the legion of states with repressive NGO laws such as Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya (amendments to the Public Benefit Organisations Act of 2013).

"The current NGO Bill contains several troubling, broad, and vaguely worded provisions such as 'public interest', and 'may/shall deem fit' which are susceptible to abuse. The bill in its current form extinguishes voluntary freedom of people based association. In the place of this repressive approach, the government should introduce incentives such as tax holidays to encourage registration and guarantee an enabling environment," said Nicholas.

During his presentation, Nicholas tabled statements by Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly & of association (UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye endorsed this statement to members of Parliament and the government of Uganda) and a joint press statement by Human Rights Watch and Chapter Four Uganda to the Madam Chair of the committee for due consideration in this consultation process.

He also tabled a Call to Action by the Committee of Democracies, a detailed study of the bill by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), and an analysis by Chapter Four Uganda.

Margaret Sekaggya, the immediate past UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders and Executive Director of Human Rights Center Uganda urged the legislators to provide for simple, fair, and expeditious registration process; reasonable reporting obligations; explicit judicial oversight to the decisions taken in the implementation of the law; trim the powers of the Minister of Internal Affairs; and delete provisions granting the NGO Board express powers to conduct arbitrary and abrupt inspections of NGO premises without notice and the deregistration clause under section 51.

"NGOs can share their registration status with the NGO Board after coming into force of the Act but the requirement for deregistration should be deleted from the section and proceed to allow NGOs apply for renewal of permits through the normal process," said Margaret.

If the bill is passed in its current form, over 11,500 NGOs in the country will be required to reapply for registration status within six months or else have their permits revoked and organizations dissolved by ‘order of the NGO Board’ in line with clause 44.

During the proposed re-registration process, organization names of some NGOs may be denied reservation in ‘public interest’ and many others may completely loose their registration status if the NGO Board thinks it is in ‘public interest’ to decline registering such organization, if the proposed activities are prejudicial to ‘the dignity of the people of Uganda’ or if it simply ‘deems it relevant’ for ‘any other reason’.

The NGO Board has made it clear during the ongoing consultation process that clause 51 should strictly provide for a registration exercise for all fully registered NGOs and not a validation process as proposed by the independent groups.

Update on timeline of the NGO Bill, 2015

March 11th, 2015 The NGO Bill, 2015 is approved by Cabinet under Minute No. 76 (CT, 2015) with the intention of having it repeal the NGO Registration Act Cap 113.

April 10th, 2015 - The NGO Bill, 2015 is published in the Government Gazette.

May 13th, 2015 - The NGO Bill, 2015 is tabled before Parliament for the very first time. The Bill is then forwarded to the Committee of Defense and Internal Affairs for consultations.

June 17th & 18th, 2015 - The Parliamentary Committee meets the Ministry on Internal Affairs (NGO Board) in a two-day consultative meeting to consider the Bill in Lake Victoria Serena Hotel, Lweza.

June 22nd & 23rd, 2015 - The consultative meeting between the Parliamentary Committee and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (NGO Board) resumes at Imperial Resort Beach Hotel in Entebbe. On June 22nd, the Clerk to the Parliamentary Committee publishes a notice in New Vision newspaper inviting members of the public to Parliament on June 25th, 2015 to provide input on the Bill.

June 25th, 2015 - The Parliamentary Committee holds the first public hearing on the NGO Bill, 2015. The hearing was a half-day event that started a few minutes after 10:00am to a few minutes after 01:00pm. Several NGOs such as FHRI, FOWODE, NGO Forum, and Human Rights Center Uganda among others made presentations to the Committee.

June 26th, 2015 - Human Rights Network Uganda (HURINET) convenes a half-day public dialogue on the NGO Bill at Hotel Africana as a side event at the 2015 CSO Fair. Chapter Four Uganda's Nicholas Opiyo presented a keynote address on the dilemmas of the NGO Bill and what all stakeholders need to know. Several members of the Committee led by the Chairperson, NGO leaders, Irish Ambassador to Uganda and Rwanda, Donal Cronin and the Head of Programmes of Democratic Governance Facility (DGF) Helen Mealins attended the event.

June 29th & 30th, 2015 - NGO leaders and members of the Parliamentary Committee meet at Imperial Golf View Hotel in Entebbe for a two-day retreat to discuss the troubling provisions of the NGO Bill as reflected in the CSO Position Paper. Chapter Four Uganda's Nicholas Opiyo delivered a presentation on the international response to the Bill during which he tabled statements and studies on the Bill by UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of the right to freedom of assembly and association, Human Rights Watch, ICNL, among others.

July 7th, 2015 – The Parliamentary Committee meets the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Ag. Secretary of the NGO Board in a half-day consultative meeting at Parliament. The objective of the meeting was to give the ministry audience to respond to the issues raised by the Committee after the public hearing and other consultations on the bill.

July 8th, 2015 – The Parliamentary Committee meets a delegation from the National Planning Authority (NPA). The committee also held a meeting with Pastor Joseph Sserwadda, the Born-again Faith (BAF) national leader.