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Bangladesh: New law on foreign funding will prevent organizing

Wednesday 26 October 2016, by siawi3


Bangladesh: New law regulating NGOs is draconian - say Newspapers, NGOs and international rights organisations

23 October 2016

The Daily Star 09 Oct 2016

Provision in NGO Bill: NGOs term it oppressive

Urge president not to give consent

[Photo:] TIB Chairperson Sultana Kamal speaks during yesterday’s press conference at the Dhaka Reporters Unity. From left, Oxfam Bangladesh Country Director Snehal V Soneji, TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman, Nijera Kori Coordinator Khushi Kabir, Manusher Jonno Foundation Executive Director Shaheen Anam, Bela Chief Executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan and Federation of NGOs in Bangladesh Director Tajul Islam were also present. Photo: Star

Staff Correspondent

Local and foreign NGOs yesterday urged President Abdul Hamid not to consent to a recently passed bill on foreign-funded NGOs, saying one of its provisions violates people’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech, thought and organisation.

“We seriously condemn it [the provision] and humbly request the president not to give consent to the bill,” eighteen leading NGOs said in a statement.

The Jatiya Sangsad on October 5 passed The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill 2016 with a provision (Section 14) that says it is an offence for foreign-funded NGOs to make “inimical” and “derogatory” remarks on the constitution and constitutional bodies.

The bill is likely to be sent to the president for consent in a day or two. He has the constitutional right to send it back to the House for reconsideration.

The NGOs demanded that the government discuss the bill with them again and make necessary amendments to Section 14 and other “undemocratic, risky and impractical provisions”.

The statement, read out by human rights activist Sultana Kamal at a press conference, said remarks by a foreign-funded NGO can be misinterpreted and labelled as “inimical” and “derogatory”. And therefore, the provision is oppressive and contrary to democratic practices.

Such provision curbing the right to freedom of speech and thought doesn’t exist in any similar law in any democratic country in the world, it reads.

It is totally unacceptable to the NGOs, which are contributing greatly to the country’s socio-economic development and establishment of good governance, Sultana Kamal said at the press conference at Dhaka Reporters Unity.

The provision says if any foreign-funded NGO engages in anti-state activities and finances or patronises extremism and terror activities, those would be considered as offences, and the NGO and its officials concerned would be tried under the country’s existing laws.

It also empowers the NGO Affairs Bureau to cancel or withhold the registration of a foreign-funded NGO or ban its activities for committing the offences.

If the bill remains unchanged, it will not be acceptable to the international community as well, said Sultana Kamal, also chairperson of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).

If the bill is amended, recognising the right to freedom of speech and organisation, it would help the NGOs work more effectively and improve the image of the government, she said.

The government had set a good example by having consultations with the NGOs on the draft bill. It made them optimistic that the law would be more democratic than the ones framed by dictatorial regimes.

The optimism, however, was not reflected in the bill. The government actually wants to discourage voluntary initiatives and control the NGOs, especially by curbing freedom of speech, said Sultana Kamal.

“This is very risky for the NGOs, especially for those working on human rights and good governance.”

Bela Chief Executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan said the punishment for the offences mentioned in the provision is already there in other laws, and there was no need for incorporating this in the bill.

The NGO Affairs Bureau would be responsible for implementing the law though it doesn’t have any mandate to deal with terror issues, she told reporters.

The bill doesn’t differentiate between an offence by an individual and that by an NGO. For example, 600 individuals can work in an NGO, but the involvement of an individual in a crime doesn’t mean that the NGO is involved in it, Rizwana said.

TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said there are specific laws on money laundering and terrorism. Yet, these issues were included in the bill. This is irrational.

As a citizen of the country, one has the right to freedom of speech. If anyone’s comment constitutes an offence, the individual can be tried under law, not the organisation he works for, he noted.

International donor agencies have also voiced concern over the provision.

CARE Bangladesh Country Director Jamie Terzi expressed solidarity with the NGOs regarding the bill.

Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) Executive Director Shaheen Anam said no NGO can get foreign funds, bypassing the NGO Affairs Bureau. The Bureau carefully looks at the details of project plans before approving those.

“If any NGO gets registered without proper verification, we cannot take blame for them,” she said.

Nijera Kori Coordinator Khushi Kabir said the government can take stern action against any NGO if it is found guilty of irregularities, but the government cannot violate the constitutional right to freedom of speech.

The press conference was organised by Ain O Salish Kendra, BRAC, Campaign for Popular Education (Campe), Nijera Kori, MJF, Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, Federation of NGOs in Bangladesh, ADAB, Association for Land Reforms and Development, PRIP Trust, Bangladesh Nari Progoti Sangha, Action Aid, Concern Worldwide, Water Aid, Oxfam International, CARE International and the TIB.

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Dhaka Tribune - October 11, 2016

Tribune Editorial

Restricting NGO freedom a slippery slope

Bangladesh faces many problems, but NGOs are not one of them.

Clamping down on NGOs would be massively counter-productive and is foolish in the extreme.

Bangladesh is tremendously indebted to NGOs for its development. Clamping down on their freedom, which includes the freedom to scrutinise and critique government activities, does not bode well for the country.

The legislation, to put it bluntly, smacks of authoritarianism.

Restricting the rights of NGOs is a slippery slope, and one we cannot afford to go down if we cherish the democratic and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of this nation.

While monitoring and regulation are desirable, and even necessary, what the Foreign Donations Regulation Bill seeks is problematic on many fronts. For example, the bill’s provision to take action against “malicious” or “derogatory” comments is too vague and open-ended.

Furthermore, it is not clear as to exactly what would constitute an offense that would be grounds for revoking an NGO’s registration.

There is also the question of why this bill would apply only to NGOs relying on foreign donations, and not local ones.

No good can from this law, and it will only hamper Bangladesh’s progress, and slow down our journey to becoming a middle-income nation anytime soon.

We urge the president to not sign off on this bill — Bangladesh can only succeed through empowered NGOs.

This bill would take us in the opposite direction.

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OMCT - 16 October 2016

Bangladesh: Parliament should withdraw Foreign Donations Regulation Bill 2015

Geneva-Paris, October 16, 2015. The Parliament of Bangladesh should withdraw the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill 2015, which if passed would severely restrict the legitimate activities of civil society and human rights defenders in Bangladesh, urged the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of OMCT and FIDH.

On September 1, 2015, the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act 2015 was tabled before the Parliament of Bangladesh and is slated to be passed into law soon.

“This new bill clearly aims at establishing a permanent Damocles sword hanging over human rights NGOs in Bangladesh, and in turn to silence victims of violations. Under this law, organisations documenting and reporting human rights violations would be denied funding clearance and would face possible de-registration. It is time for the international community to wake up and see the dramatic closing of democratic space in Bangladesh before it is too late”, stated Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT).

The new bill combines the 1978 Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Ordinance and the 1982 Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Ordinance, and creates greater limitations to the work of civil society in Bangladesh. Section 3 of the Bill stipulates that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will not be allowed to receive foreign donations or contributions without prior permission from the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGO-AB), which is under the direct supervision of the Prime Minister’s Office. NGOs will have to declare to the Government the source of foreign donations and how they will be used. In addition, they will have to be registered with the NGO-AB to undertake any activities funded by foreign contributions, and to renew their registration every 10 years. However, no time limit is specified for the registration process, leaving open the risk of undue delays by the authorities. It is also of concern that renewal of registration is conditioned to the fact that “activities of the previous 10 years are found to be satisfactory” but without providing a definition for “satisfactory” activities, which may lead to arbitrary decision (Section 4).

Under the Act, the NGO-AB will also be empowered to inspect, monitor and assess the activities of NGOs that receive foreign funding, allowing direct control and surveillance over the activities of NGOs (Section 10). Moreover, the Bill provides for punitive measures for violations of the law by both organisations and individuals, which include fines, disciplinary action and cancellation or suspension of registration (Section 15).

“If passed, this new legislation would severely undermine the crucial role that civil society organisations play in Bangladesh. We call on the National Parliament not to pass the Foreign Donations Regulation Bill 2015 into law, as it clearly violates international human rights standards that Bangladesh is bound to respect,” said Karim Lahidji, FIDH President.

The right of every individual to freedom of association is a fundamental and universal right enshrined in numerous international human rights instruments to which Bangladesh is a party, as well as by Articles 5 and 13 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and by Article 38 of the country’s Constitution.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders was created in 1997 by OMCT and FIDH. The overall objective of this programme is to strengthen the action of human rights defenders in defence of victims and to reduce their isolation and vulnerability. It is also based on the absolute necessity to establish a systematic response to the repression they face.

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Human Rights Watch - 19 October 2016

Bangladesh: New Law Will Choke Civil Society

Law Allows Arbitrary Closure, Denies Free Expression, Blocks Funding to NGOs

(New York) – The Bangladesh parliament should repeal a new law regulating civil society organizations accepting foreign funds, Human Rights Watch said today. The new law subjects non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to comprehensive and arbitrary government control over their activities, stifling freedom of expression and other rights. Bangladesh’s international donors, who provide critical development assistance, should publicly call for the repeal of the law.

The law, known as the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill 2016 (FDRB), came into effect on October 13, 2016. The law requires all foreign-funded NGOs, a category that describes development, human rights, and many other organizations, to submit virtually all activities for approval to a bureau under the prime minister’s office, without clear criteria for grounds for rejection or a timeframe in which decisions should be rendered. Registration is similarly at the discretion of the bureau, and a last-minute addition to the law makes it an offense for NGOs to criticize the government.

“The Foreign Donations Law is a shocking new initiative by a repressive government to make civil society toe the government line, or risk being arbitrarily shut down,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government claims it is committed to freedom of expression and pluralism, but then passes a law that would make an authoritarian regime proud.”

Human Rights Watch and Bangladeshi NGOs have long expressed concerns about earlier drafts of this law. Among other provisions, the new law:

Gives the NGO Affairs Bureau the authority to review proposed projects by NGOs and order them cancelled;
Requires prior governmental approval before anyone involved in voluntary activities travels out of the country for purposes connected with work on the project;
Requires groups receiving or planning to receive foreign funding to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau, submit to inspections and monthly coordination meetings with its representatives, and seek approval for all planned activities before receiving the grant; and
Imposes tough sanctions for non-compliance by both organizations and individuals, including fines, disciplinary action and cancellation of registration.

A new element added since the draft law was circulated in 2014 makes “inimical” or “derogatory” remarks against the constitution, the parliament and other governmental bodies an offense. These terms are undefined, and could be used to limit any criticism of the government whatsoever. Any NGO found by the NGO Affairs bureau to have engaged in “inimical” or “derogatory” remarks can have its registration cancelled. Such a law clearly abrogates the rights of free expression which Bangladesh, both through its own constitution and through its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is obligated to protect.

The law is part of a sustained attack on civil society, particularly human rights organizations and other critics of the government. In an October 19 statement Suranjit Sengupta, a leader of the ruling Awami League party, reportedly said that non-governmental organizations have no right to freedom of expression.

The International Centre for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL) has said previously that Bangladeshi procedures regulating NGOs are already plagued by delays, hurdles, non-transparency, and arbitrary decisions.

The law comes during a sustained campaign by the government against political, media, and civil society critics which has led to an effective clampdown on any dissent from within the country itself, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Bangladeshi government should be trying to create a welcoming and encouraging legal environment for NGOs in a manner that accords with international best practices and does not interfere with fundamental rights,” said Adams. “Instead, it is treating NGOs like the enemy within. Requiring prior approval of projects, giving the state-wide discretion to deny projects and foreign funding, requiring approval for travel, and targeting critics are the hallmarks of an authoritarian state – not a democracy.”