CSOs raise alarm over PVO Amendment Bill

Civic society organisations have expressed concern over two proposed legislation, the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill and approved principles aimed at amending the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act to criminalise citizens’ unauthorised negotiations with foreign governments.

The government recently gazetted the PVO Amendment Bill, to bring the existing PVO Act into line with Recommendation Eight, made by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to prevent money laundering and terrorist financiers from abusing PVOs for illicit activities.

However, CSOs say the PVO Amendment Bill poses a ‘significant’ risk to civic space in Zimbabwe as it gives too much power to the executive to control and interfere with the work of NGOs while increasing surveillance and monitoring.

According to the Ministry of Justice Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Cabinet on November 16, also approved principles of the proposed Criminal Law to amend the Act and drafting instructions have since been forwarded to the Attorney-General’s Office.

These approved principles seek to regulate Zimbabwean citizens’ engagement with foreign governments to reportedly incorporate Section 12 of the Constitution which deals with Zimbabwe’s foreign policy.

Section 12 stipulates, among others, that Zimbabwe’s foreign policy must be based on the promotion and protection of the country’s national interest and respect for international law.

The proposed law will criminalise, among others, unauthorised private negotiations engaged in by citizens with foreign governments which relates to the country’s foreign relations and policy with other sovereign nations.

In a statement, Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe said these two proposed legislative steps have an ominously chilling effect given their far-reaching impact on the ability of civil society to work freely in Zimbabwe.

MISA noted that approvals to amend the Criminal Law follow the recent gazetting of the PVO Amendment Bill that “seemingly seeks to target NGOs that are performing their watchdog role over the three arms of the state which is at the core of citizens’ democratic participation in governance issues and economic development.”

“While the ministry (of justice) said the amendments would have no effect on the right to freedom of expression, the proposed law has the potential of instilling fear among citizens thereby limiting their right to free expression,” said the watchdog.

“In essence, the laws seek to curtail and criminalise civil society’s work at an unprecedented scale and level that has not been witnessed before in the history of Zimbabwe.”

In a Twitter Space discussing ‘The PVO Amendment Bill: Why we should care,’ held Wednesday evening, civic society actors also expressed concern on this new legislation.

A senior researcher at the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Yassin Nhara, said the PVO Amendment Bill came from a context of the ‘new dispensation’ that viewed PVOs, NGOs and CSOs with suspicion.

She said the bill gives the Minister of Social Welfare extensive powers including to arbitrarily interfere with activities of PVOs.

“Through the PVO Amendment Bill, the Minister could use a risk matrix to identify organisations as ‘high risk,’ but organisations are not included in deciding what the risk criteria are. The Minister could also appoint acting Trustees who could exercise decision-making powers over the organisation, with no oversight,” she said.

“The Amendment Bill would also require PVOs to re-register periodically and the re-registration could be denied at the discretion of the Minister. But the law generally cannot be applied retrospectively.”

Nhara said the PVO Amendment Bill would affect existing PVOS, as well as NGOs which are currently registered as Trusts, affecting operations of many organisations.

Accountability Lab Zimbabwe Country Director, Mcdonald Lewanika, noted the amendments seem to only affect NGOs but would have an impact on all PVOs such as burial societies, humanitarian organisations and community service organisations.

“What does the Bill mean to Zimbabwean citizens? You don’t want too much state interference in issues that are in the private sector. The PVO amendments also affect Trusts that are a tool for organising family and personal affairs, as these organisations rely on donor external funding,” he said.

A legal practitioner, Amanda Ndlovu stressed that from the heading of the Act, Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Act, PVOs were private and voluntary, therefore “should not have too much state interference.”

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