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Sri Lanka shelves changes to NGO bill as activists see red

Compulsory registration not deemed acceptable in free and democratic society

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo

Published: April 11, 2018 04:14 AM GMT

Updated: April 11, 2018 04:15 AM GMT

Sri Lanka shelves changes to NGO bill as activists see red

Civic groups and activists burn copies of a notice issued by the Sri Lankan government in Colombo in this 2014 file photo. The notice warned NGOs from engaging in activities outside their mandate, specifically citing press conferences, journalism training and workshops as activities (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com).

Sri Lanka's government withdrew a draft amendment to its controversial NGO bill on March 28 after civic groups rose up in arms against the suggested changes. The bill was designed to monitor non-governmental organizations in the country.

The proposed amendment to the Voluntary Social Service Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act No.31 of 1980 received cabinet approval on Feb. 20 but has since been shelved after it invited a fierce backlash.

Critics say the amended bill would grant the government too much leeway in investigating complaints of misconduct directed at NGOs, such as money laundering or unsubstantiated claims they may be financing terrorists. The authorities would be empowered to demand banks hand over NGOs' financial information, and officials could raid their premises without needing a warrant.

Ruki Fernando, advisor to the INFORM Human Rights Documentation Center, said the government is trying to clamp down on freedom of association and control civic groups from organizing activities and mobilizing groups of protesters.

"People should be free to register [an NGO] with the government at their own discretion. If they choose to do so, it should be through a process of voluntary notification not mandatory approval," said Fernando, also a member of Watchdog Collective.

A 2014 file image of activists in Colombo protesting against a government order limiting the activities of civil society groups after the government warned them not to engage in activities outside their mandate, specifically citing press conferences, journalism training and workshops as activities. More than 1,400 NGOs received notices from the government. (Photo  by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com).

 

Other activists say the changes, if legally implemented, would restrict NGOs' constitutionally guaranteed rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.

"People should be free to organize themselves in any way to support or oppose any law, policy or project as long as that does represent a criminal act," said Fernando.

"If criminal acts are involved, action must be taken through existing laws," he said. 

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"Just as action will be taken against other entities such as in the private sector or government agencies, without resorting to discriminatory laws that may only target civic groups that challenge and oppose the government or push politically or socially unpopular agendas," he told ucanews.com.

By way of example, he cited agendas related to being held accountable for war crimes, sexuality and gender orientation, caste-based oppression, a secular state, and federalism.

Mano Ganesan, the Minister of Dialogue and Official Languages, said the proposed legislation would not be approved or gazetted until there has been more discussion on the matter with civil society.

A file image of a protester holding a poster against restrictions on NGO operations in Colombo 2014 after the government warned civic groups not to step outside their mandate. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)

 

A.T. Ariyaratna, president of the Sarvodaya Movement and a member of Sri Lanka's Constitutional Council, said the proposed amendment would bring even the Village Death Benevolent Society under the government's purview.

The current law is sufficient to take action against any anticipated problems, he added.

The National Peace Council (NPC) welcomed the government's decision to dial back. It said targeting civil society as a whole with a special law is discriminatory and democratically unacceptable.

"In a democracy, the people are free to organize themselves for any purpose as long as it is not in pursuit of illegal activities," the NPC said in a statement on March 31.

"Compulsory registration is not acceptable in a free and democratic society, which enjoys freedom of association as a constitutional right."

NGOs also burned copies of a notice from the government asking them not to engage in activities outside their mandate several years ago in 2014. 

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