HARARE – United Nations experts have urged President Emmerson Mnangagwa not to sign into law the controversial Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, warning the legislation in its current form “severely restricts civil space and the right to freedom of association in the country.”
The PVO Amendment Bill has faced strong opposition, especially from civil society organisations and the international community.
The bill was approved by the National Assembly and sailed through the Senate February 1, 2023, and now awaits the president’s assent before it becomes law.
The UN experts submitted an analysis of the bill to the government in 2021, concluding that it was incompatible with Zimbabwe’s international human rights obligations, in particular the right to freedom of association.
In a statement on Tuesday, the experts said it was not too late for Mnangagwa to block the law.
“It’s not too late for the president to change course,” the experts said. “We stand ready to assist the government to revise the Amendment Bill to ensure compliance with international human rights norms and standards.”
They expressed deep concern that the oversight regime in the PVO bill provides for disproportionate and discretionary powers to the newly-established Office of the Registrar of PVOs, without independence from the executive branch.
“The Registrar’s Office powers will include the ability to consider, grant or reject the registration of PVOs, with little to no judicial recourse against such decisions. The bill’s requirements would also immediately render existing organisations, operating lawfully as trusts and associations, illegal,” the experts said.
The Office of the Registrar will also have extensive powers to intervene in and monitor the activities of PVOs, the experts said.
The prohibition of any “political affiliation” and unjustified restrictions on PVOs’ ability to obtain funding, including foreign funds, has also alarmed the UN experts.
“The vagueness or non-definition of many provisions in the bill also raises concerns that the proposed law will be misapplied,” said the experts.
They warned that actions considered to be in breach of certain provisions in the Bill could lead to criminal prosecution, with penalties ranging from heavy fines to imprisonment.
“While one of the stated aims of the Bill is to counter terrorism and money laundering in Zimbabwe, the restrictions contained therein will have a chilling effect on civil society organisations – particularly dissenting voices. By enacting this legislation, authorities would effectively be closing an already shrinking civic space,” the UN experts said.
The PVO Amendment Bill is not the first attempt by the Zimbabwean authorities to regulate NGOs. The first one was made in 2004 through the Non-Governmental Organisation Bill. It was passed by parliament but never signed into law by then president, Robert Mugabe.