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Zimbabwe Holds Public Meeting on Proposed NGO Laws - 2004-09-07

Zimbabwe's parliament has conducted rare public hearings to debate proposed laws to control non-governmental organizations. The proposed legislation would prevent all human rights organizations from receiving foreign funding and will only allow NGO's to operate if they have successfully registered with the government.

More than 500 people from scores of non-governmental organizations attended this unusual event to speak their minds about the legislation that will affect their lives and their livelihoods. They all said they they only survive because of foreign funding.

A multi-party parliamentary committee held the meeting, but made no contribution to the stream of criticism against the proposed law that came from students, church leaders, lawyers, the disabled, and many other interest groups.

Outside of the deliberations, human rights activists and those who monitor governance issues say that they know that they are the cause of the new legislation.

Arnold Tsunga is the director of the Zimbabwean non-governmental organization, Lawyers for Human Rights. "This bill is targeted at a few organizations, especially those that are seen as effective in influencing public opinion on the human rights violations and atrocities that the state has been responsible for. And it is targeted at those organizations the government feels [it] can influence, especially grassroots opinion, and create a real danger for change in government," he says. "It will have a chilling effect on everyone, so a few organizations will be closed, but then all other organizations will be rendered ineffective in terms of promoting human rights, so people will be targeting their efforts to areas they think are safe."

Mr. Tsunga and others in the civil rights movement in Zimbabwe say the government has several reasons for wanting to hold public hearings before the proposed laws go to parliament next month. "It was trying to create an impression that they are concerned about the opinion of the NGOs themselves, but they also want to test the water, the degree of resistance that is being offered in order for the government to strategize further," he says. "The other reason is to create a perception of participation so that by the time they pass the bill in its present format, they can say, 'We consulted widely and that that process of extensive consultation is the one that resulted in the bill coming out."

Mr. Tsunga said the government is likely to make, what he describes as, cosmetic changes to the draft laws, to define more clearly those organizations it wishes to ban by including the word political in its definitions of human rights issues.

Zimbabwe is due to hold parliamentary elections next March, a time when civil rights activists are busiest. The government says the new laws are necessary because many foreign-funded NGOs engage in political work to promote opposition groups.