On January 22, 2023, Zimbabwean authorities announced they had revoked the registration of 291 nongovernmental and civil society organizations for “noncompliance with the provisions of Private Voluntary Organization Act.” Human Rights Watch had criticized the law as retrogressive when it was being drafted in 2004 and raised the alarm on its potential violations of the right to freedom of association.
“Zimbabwe’s repression of civil society organizations needs to stop, especially in light of the general election this year,” said Ashwanee Budoo-Scholtz, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to stop using the Private Voluntary Organization Act as a tool to silence the exercise of fundamental democratic rights.”
The Private Voluntary Organization Act is incompatible with international human rights law standards on freedom of association to which Zimbabwe is a party, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Paul Mavhima, the labor and social welfare minister, said that registration was withdrawn from some groups because they allegedly failed to submit audited accounts for money raised from donors, while in other cases the revocation was for national security reasons, or for allegedly straying from their mandate.
Critics, however, have called the move a consolidation of authoritarian rule and a harbinger of worse things to come.
“The law is now an instrument of repression for the civil society sector,” a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer told Human Rights Watch. “The right of existence and operation is under threat because the requirements of this law can easily be used to shut down organizations and apply criminal law against NGOs and civil society leaders. This deregistration seems to carry the message that you either comply with our regulations or you perish.”
He noted that the restrictions can silence grassroots groups that provide guidance and leadership at the community level, leaving voters in the dark about important developments as the election nears.
In November 2021, the government proposed an amendment to the Private Voluntary Organizations Act to further restrict the operations of nongovernmental organizations. The amendment would allow the government to cancel the registration of organizations deemed to be “political,” with criminal penalties for the groups’ leaders. The government said it is aimed at curbing terrorism financing and money laundering to comply with the recommendation of the country’s Financial Action Taskforce. The parliament and the senate have passed the bill, and it is awaiting presidential signature.
There is no doubt that the adoption of the amendment will further threaten the already compromised right to freedom of association in the country, Human Rights Watch said. For this reason, the amendment should be withdrawn.
A member of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum told Human Rights Watch that the fact the amended law may come into effect before the general election means that groups that typically play an important role in the lead up to, during, and after, elections, will be shut out and prevented from doing so.
“What it means is that we may not have NGO-sponsored election observers and election monitoring by civil society organizations,” the rights defender said. “This would definitely undermine the credibility of the election because independent organizations that observe and compile reports on the electoral processes would not be able to do so. For many of us, it is very clear that there are specific organizations that this NGO law targets, and these are organizations that work on human rights and governance issues.”
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has on several occasions threatened to expel groups that do not follow his party’s mandate, and that in his view intervene in the country’s politics.
The African Union and the Southern African Development Community should intervene, Human Rights Watch said. They should urge President Mnangagwa not to sign the amendment into law. They should also urge the government to reconcile the Private Voluntary Organization Act with AU and SADC standards, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, AU Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, and SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.
“The credibility of the upcoming general election, and whether it guarantees Zimbabwe’s citizens the right to genuinely chose their representatives, will be closely linked to the ability of civil society to monitor and report on the election process,” Budoo-Scholtz said. “Groups, especially those working on governance issues and acting as observers during elections, need to know they can operate without any fear of deregistration or criminal penalties.”