THE Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Bill will see government agents capture some civil society organisations (CSOs), thereby undermining transparency and accountability, an independent public policy think-tank, the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI), says.
The government is pushing for the PVO Bill, which has already undergone its second reading, to ban “rogue” non-governmental organisations, which it says are being used as a stalking horse by the West to fund political activity in the country.
President Mnangagwa has not hidden his stance towards the Bill, saying he is ready to sign it should it go through all stages of Parliament. The Bill’s second reading in August went unopposed, with the opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) failing to attend parliamentary proceedings.
Civil society organisations say the Bill will close the civic space, while clamping down on independent entities that have been playing an oversight role on Zimbabwe’s human rights situation, providing political surveillance and legal representation, among other services.
The government’s main excuse for pushing the Bill has been compliance with the Finance Intelligence Task Force (FATF) on anti-money laundering and combatting financial terrorism and proliferation.
However, the ZDI says the Bill will allow the government to install pre-emptive strategies for disrupting planned CSO activities — and crushing dissent.
“Government will have access to all the information,” the ZDI says in a report titled: Civic Space Contestation ahead of 2023.
“The PVO Bill gives the Minister power to fire the board of CSOs, and replace it with loyalists of the state. In addition, the CSOs that will be registered under the PVO Bill will operate in an environment of self-fear and censorship.
“This means issues such as accountability, oversight anti-corruption, human rights monitoring will be outside the scope of ‘legal’ CSOs because criticising politicians in these areas of programming is unavoidable.” Signs of capture have already been visible, with other CSOs conniving with state security agents to disrupt meetings held by their counterparts, the ZDI says.
“The FATF recommendations have been used as a justification for authoritarian clampdown on CSOs regarded opponents to the Mnangagwa regime. Government is using a blanket definition of non-profit organisations (NPO) to envelop as much critics as possible.”
The government has put CSOs that are registered as trusts on the hit-list, contrary to FATF recommendations and in what is regarded as a calculated attempt to silence government critics, says the ZDI.
A trust company is a legal entity that acts as an agent, on behalf of a person or business for the purpose of administration, management, and the eventual transfer of assets to a beneficial party.
“According to the FATF, an NPO that ought to be targeted by the PVO Bill is a legal entity or organisation that primarily engages in raising or disbursing funds for charitable, religious, cultural, educational and social or fraternity purposes or the carrying out of other good works.”
“Most organisations registered as Trusts tackle human rights, accountability, advocacy and democracy issues — which do not fall within the FATF definition. A 2014 study showed that NPOs that specialise in service activities are most at risk of terrorist financing abuse, while those in ‘expressive activities’ were not at high risk of abuse.
“However, this may not be the case in Zimbabwe where those in the services sector suffer little or no impact of the Bill, whereas the others are targeted,” the ZDI says.
The think-tank says the Bill gives more power to the minister of Public Service, Labour, Social Welfare to determine the level of risk posed by a CSO, leaving it prone to manipulation as a political weapon by the government.
“The Minister determines if an entity is a ‘high risk’ of terrorist financing without consulting or engaging the non-profit organisations.
This is contrary to the FAFT’s emphasis that countries should work with NPOs to develop and refine best practices to address terrorist financing risks and vulnerabilities.
“Failure to include such consultation clears all doubt that the main purpose of the PVO Bill is not authoritarian capture and closure of the public space.”