Paris-Geneva, March 2, 2023 – At the beginning of February, the Zimbabwean Parliament passed the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill H.B. 10, 2021 (PVO Bill). As the enactment of the PVO Bill is now in the hands of the President of Zimbabwe, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT) urges him to refrain from signing this bill into law, as its implementation would seriously undermine freedom of association and expression in the country.
On February 1, 2023, the Zimbabwean Senate passed the PVO Bill. The bill now only awaits the signature of Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa to be enacted into law. Although the official purpose of the PVO Bill is allegedly to fight money laundering and terrorism, civil society organisations as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly have warned that the Bill violates fundamental rights and gives the government unjustifiable control over civil society groups. In a special report published in January 2022, Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) warned that the PVO Bill is an attack against active citizenship as it undermines citizen engagement.
Should it be adopted, the PVO Bill would provide the Office of the Registrar of PVOs, which is under the control of the executive branch, with wide and discretionary powers to interfere in civil society organisations’ governance and activities. PVOs will be required to register with the Registrar’s Office, which will have powers to consider, grant or reject the registration of organisations, with little to no judicial or administrative recourse against such decisions. Many PVOs currently operating lawfully will not be able to continue under the new law unless they meet the new requirements. The Registrar will have the power to designate any PVO as “high risk” or “vulnerable” to terrorism abuse following a non-transparent risk assessment. That would allow them to revoke their registration or even to replace their leadership. Additionally, the new bill would include harsh penalties, ranging from heavy fines to imprisonment, for administrative offences related to the registration of PVOs. Above all, the bill contains provisions that allow for the banning of civil society organisations from “engaging in political activities”, a broad and vague concept that could potentially include legitimate human rights activities.
The Observatory recalls that the PVO Bill has been strongly contested by civil society organisations and that the process of adoption of the text has been marred by human rights violations, including acts of intimidation against human rights defenders opposing it. The international community also voiced criticism of the bill, with UN human rights experts recently expressing their concerns over the imminent adoption of the text, stating that “the restrictions contained therein [the bill] will have a chilling effect on civil society organisations – particularly dissenting voices. By enacting this legislation, authorities would effectively be closing an already shrinking civic space”.
The Observatory expresses its concern over the dire impact this amendment will have on civic space and freedom of association in the country if enacted. The Observatory is further concerned by the fact that this bill is being discussed and passed in the lead-up to the 2023 general elections in Zimbabwe, and will have the effect of muzzling independent civil society, which plays a crucial role in guaranteeing participatory and transparent elections.
Zimbabwean civil society has faced undue restrictions to the right to freedom of association in the past months and these will only increase if the PVO Bill is enacted. In June 2022, the Zimbabwe Republic Police besieged a meeting of Mash Central (Bindura) Youth School on Constitutionalism, held hostage about 86 participants, confiscated the attendance registers, and ordered everyone to provide them with their residential address. In the same month, a meeting of the Institute for Young Women Development (IYWD) was likewise disrupted by the police and all participants were arrested.
The Observatory urges the President of Zimbabwe to reject to sign the PVO Amendment Bill into law as it would impose undue restrictions on civic space in the country. The Observatory urges the government of Zimbabwe to engage in dialogue with civil society actors and promote an enabling environment for them. The Observatory further urges the authorities to protect, respect and promote the right to freedom of association, a right protected by the Zimbabwean Constitution, particularly Article 58, as well as by international human rights instruments to which Zimbabwe is a party, especially Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.