This was first written for the Deseret News.
A controversial bill that critics say is part of a trend of governments restricting the work of foreign charities is awaiting the signature of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni,according to Voice of America.
The Non-Governmental Organizations Act was passed by the country's National Assembly in late November despite heavy criticism from several civil society groups that said the measure could limit non-governmental organizations from helping the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations.
Human Rights Watch has called the bill’s language vague and argued that it could stifle dissent ahead of Uganda's general elections in February.
The most controversial section of the bill prohibits, “any act which is prejudicial to the interests of Uganda and the dignity of the people of Uganda.” Another part of the bill criminalizes any activities by organizations that have not been issued a government permit and it provides prison sentences of up to three years for violations.
But supporters of the measure note the bill says its purpose is not to hinder charitable work but rather to streamline the regulation of NGOs and promote transparency. In an attempt to assuage fears, a government spokesperson told Voice of America that no NGO would be dissolved without evidence against it.
But critics aren't convinced such laws are simply attempts to streamline processes.
In an editorial published last week titled “Global War on NGOs,” The Washington Post Editorial Board said “the work of these organizations was never easy, saving lives and protecting rights in the most inhospitable environments, but increasingly, autocrats and their state machinery are erecting permanent barriers to funding, operations and freedoms.”
“The real losers,” The Post editorial board wrote, “are billions of people who will suffer more when NGOs are silenced and shuttered.”
In the 1990s, NGOs flourished around the world, but after uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin “tightened the screws on civil society out of a paranoid and misguided fear that NGOs were plotting an overthrow," The Post editorial said. Since then, autocrats around the world followed Russia’s lead in restricting NGOs. In 2011, the Arab Spring prompted “a new wave of repression.”
The president and chief executive of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Douglas Rutzen, recently wrote that between 2004 and 2010 more than 50 countries considered or enacted measures to repress NGOs, and the situation has gotten worse since then. “Since 2012, more than 90 laws constraining the freedoms of association or assembly have been proposed or enacted. This trend is consistent with a continuing decline in democracy worldwide.”
In a video last year, Thomas Carothers, vice president of research at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained the rise in NGO laws. “It has to do with some very broad trends in international politics that are about the relativization of power in the world. … The United States and Europe, the main actors supporting democracy and human rights, don’t have the power that they once had and people on the other side of the equation … are pushing back.”
“At the moment, more than 50 NGO laws are being drafted worldwide,” Barbara Unmüsswig of the Heinrich Böll told the German newspaper, Handelsblatt, this past summer. “The laws are often formulated ambiguously on purpose to leave the door open for security agencies.”
The Handelsblatt article went on to explain that these laws rise in response to NGOs’ promotion of, “liberty, security, prosperity and participation,” which provokes autocrats and nationalists. “What the governments resent most are the NGOs mobilizing citizen protests against economic and development projects.”
Harriet Sherwood recently wrote another cause of “the NGO crackdown” is the anti-terrorism efforts being promoted by the West. She argues that these measures “sweep civil society organizations into their embrace, either inadvertently or deliberately.”