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Human rights curtailed by Zambian NGO Act

By Rev. Malawo Matyola
Posted on Thursday, 15 October 2009 13:03

In the Know features an interview, opinion or analysis from the people making the news in Africa each week.

Zambian NGOs are waiting with trepidation for the government to publish new guidelines on their activities after President Rupiah Banda signed a new NGO Act in August that will force all organisations to register with a government-approved board. Part of a wave of legislation being passed on the continent designed to restrict NGO activities, Rev Malawo Matyola, director of the Zambia Council for Social Development, says the move is an indictment of Zambia’s failure to uphold human rights.

Since 1991, there has been a rapid growth in the number of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Zambia within the area of democracy, good governance, decentralisation and poverty eradication. Their mandates range from monitoring government commitments to spend money on poverty reduction, and fostering the participation of communities in the development process.

Zambian CSOs are regarded as credible alternatives to government when it comes to service delivery. But the relationship is often strained between government and those CSOs involved in advocacy, who point out government weaknesses and are often mistakenly regarded as political bodies. Both foreign and local CSOs that support local advocacy work have to tread carefully when openly criticising government’s role. On top of this, interaction between government and civil society is weak, muddled by undercurrent of mutual mistrust and suspicion.

In the decades since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in Zambia, governments have attempted to find ways of controlling and silencing NGOs and the media, eager to ensure the government gets credit for the small gains attributed to the NGO sector.

Attempts to pass an NGO Law in 1998, 2000 and 2007 were met with strong opposition from international, regional and local development players. In 2007, NGOs united with the media and members of parliament to defer the bill, but when it was reintroduced in 2009, media professionals were threatened with new media regulation at the same time as NGOs struggled to stop it passing through parliament.

The newly passed NGO Act, which President Rupiah Banda agreed to in late August, is designed to restrict the work of NGOs in Zambia. This is a clear an indication of Zambia’s lamentable failure to uphold its obligations to protect human rights, especially the freedom of association, expression and assembly protected under international human rights instruments, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, and Zambia’s Constitution, which recognises that citizens must always have the capacity to join associations without state interference.

Requiring a group of people that has come together for a common purpose to register with the government first, as the new law does, is contrary to the notion of free association. Freedom of association cannot be dependent on registration or legal personality, and it should not be a right granted by the government to its citizens. The new mandatory registration of civil society organisations restricts this right: NGOs should be allowed to exist and carry out collective activities without having to register.

Zambia’s new NGO act has given discretionary powers to the new government-controlled NGO Board to determine both the sector and the geographical area where organisations can work. Other powers that both restrict and criminalise the work of NGOs require condemnation by all well-meaning citizens of the world.

The Zambian government must consider reviewing its relations with the media and the CSO sectors otherwise the Millennium Development Goals and many other development initiatives will remain a distant dream.

Rev. Malawo Matyola is director of the Zambia Council for Social Development

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