Human Rights Watch yesterday called upon international donors to publicly express concern over the draft Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, 2014, saying it would severely restrict the already “beleaguered NGOs”.
“The draft law can easily be misused to limit perfectly legitimate activities of NGOs (nongovernmental organisations) and to attack its critics,” HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said.
The draft law, approved by the cabinet early in June, and which will now be presented to the parliamentary standing committee for consideration, has also been criticised by national NGOs.
According to the report on the proposed law, the NGO Affairs Bureau under the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) will have approval authority over foreign-funded projects, and to “inspect, monitor and assess the NGO activities” and close groups and cancel their registration if it sees fit.
“Corruption is flourishing in the government and the private sector, so it is more than odd that the government is spending its time passing tough laws that target NGOs.” Robertson said in a statement yesterday.
The draft law also requires prior approval before anyone involved in voluntary activities travel out of the country on issues related to their work on the project.
“That provision is a potential violation of article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which gives anyone the freedom to leave any country, including their own,” the report said.
The HRW body said the government has held consultations with independent stakeholders, but the draft still contains unnecessary, onerous and intrusive provisions.
The draft law requires NGOs to seek approval for all planned activities before receiving any grant and proposes tough sanctions for non-compliance.
“These are the kind of restrictions one usually associates with a one-party or authoritarian state, not a democracy like Bangladesh,” Robertson said.
“Governments should not be in the business of deciding what is and isn't a good project or whether people can travel outside the country,” he added.
In any case, the NGOs would be able to file an appeal with the prime minister's office, but the draft states that its ruling would be final, which will deny recourse to an independent judicial process, the report added.
The NGO Affairs Bureau has previously blocked funds to groups and opened investigations on political grounds, the HRW said, citing examples of blocking funds of rights body Odhikar and arrest of its staff members Adilur Rahman Khan and ASM Nasiruddin Elan.
In May, there was an attempt by unidentified people to abduct Mohammad Nur Khan, the group's investigations director, who has also been threatened for criticising extrajudicial killings by security forces, the HRW said.
“Given the previous arbitrary behaviour of the NGO Affairs Bureau and its lack of transparency, it is imperative to establish an independent appeals process,” Robertson said.
The Bangladesh government already has laws through which terrorist or illegal activities by independent groups and others can be addressed, the statement said, negating the Bangladesh government's version that tough laws are required to check financial and other crimes by NGOs.