The United States Friday said legislation approved by Zimbabwe's parliament curbing human rights and other non-governmental groups would stifle political debate in the African country. It urged President Robert Mugabe not to sign the measure.
The measure approved by the parliament in Harare late Thursday would effectively outlaw foreign, or foreign-supported, human rights and other non-governmental groups, or NGO's, from operating in Zimbabwe.
Since most groups of this kind, including church-affiliated organizations in Zimbabwe, receive at least some funding from abroad, the measure could result in the shutdown of hundreds of NGO's, and the pending law has spurred a wave of domestic and foreign criticism.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the measure, if signed into law by President Mugabe, would stifle political debate and the exercise of civil liberties in Zimbabwe. "In our view, this bill is an assault on civil society, and an attempt to curtail political discussion in Zimbabwe. It is yet another sign that the government of Zimbabwe may not be serious about holding free and fair parliamentary elections in March 2005. And we call on President Mugabe not to sign this bill," he said.
Mr. Ereli said the bill would bar international human rights groups from operating in Zimbabwe, and prohibit domestic groups working on human rights issues from receiving foreign funding of any source, including from Zimbabweans living overseas.
He said it would set up a mechanism for oversight of NGO's that would be highly intrusive and subject to political manipulation.
President Mugabe, the subject of frequent U.S. criticism, has accused foreign-backed civic groups of being conduits of interference in his country's internal affairs.
Domestic opponents of the pending law, including legislators from the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change or MDC, say that, when the law becomes effective, the Mugabe government intends to move against a list of prominent groups supporting human rights and democratic reform.
Government officials have denied the measure targets specific groups, and have said organizations would get several months to comply with registration and other new requirements, before the government acted against them.
The MDC Secretary-General, Welshman Ncube, said the law threatens to push Zimbabwe into what he termed the dark ages.
An association representing Zimbabwean NGO.'s warns it could lead to the closure of most such groups and the loss of thousands of jobs and incomes.