Civil society up in arms against revisions to NGO Act | Sunday Observer

Civil society up in arms against revisions to NGO Act

The government this week was forced to withdraw the Bill to amend the Voluntary Social Service Organizations Act after facing a barrage of criticism from members of the civil society. Suspending the Bill, Minister of National Coexistence Dialogue and Official Languages, Mano Ganesan said, it will only be gazetted after a fair discussion is held with civil society regarding the proposed amendments. The move to conduct discussions with the relevant stakeholders has been labelled as ‘positive’ by civil society members who say it is a favourable change in government that appears to heed concerns of the civil society at large.

The Bill to amend the Voluntary Social Service Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act No. 31 of 1980 gained Cabinet approval on February 20. But many in the civil society including non-governmental organizations saw it as an attempt to suppress civil society allowing government to exert its power and control over them through the National Secretariat For Non Governmental Organizations giving it powers not even held by law enforcement agencies.

Criticisms against the Bill came from all corners of the vast civil society organizations in the country which perhaps eventually influenced the decision to temporarily suspend it from being gazetted.

“New laws in the country are being formulated which undermines democracy” Founder of the Sarvodaya Movement A.T Ariyaratne said, adding that the proposed amendments would only further curb the limited freedom offered to them. He pointed out that the amendments would bring even the Village Death Benevolent Society under the government’s purview.

According to Ariyaratne, the existing laws are sufficient to take action against any errant organizations with the new amendments to the Act seen as unnecessary by them. He also urged that the state puts its effort behind curbing corruption in government agencies, instead.

Meanwhile, releasing a communique on their observations regarding the proposed Bill, the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) said, if enacted, the proposed amendments could have a serious impact on the very existence of a diverse number of entities that forms the civil society in Sri Lanka and their activities and objectives.

While reiterating that the existing laws are adequate to monitor activities and finances, the CPA said, the government should explain why such amendments are needed. “What objectives are intended to be achieved by it and what gaps in the legal system does it seek to address” the communique read. It also lamented regarding the lack of transparency in the process by which the Bill was formulated calling it ‘deeply troubling’ and ‘utterly unbecoming of the government’.

The CPA points out that redefining the term ‘NGO’ making it broader through the amendments calls for smaller and informal organizations to be brought under the Act along with think tanks involved in policy reforms. It also raised concerns about several other proposed amendments such as, the labelling of NGOs based on its funding which may lead to different treatment of foreign funded NGOs thereby creating negative stereotypes about organizations that receive funds from abroad as ‘foreign agents’.

Slamming the proposed amendments, Executive Director of Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon claimed, that the National Secretariat For Non Governmental Organizations had not heeded the proposals made by the consultants to the advisory committee of the Secretariat thus acting in an unethical manner, while it had not held discussions with Civil Society Organizations prior to formulating the amendments.

Admitting this, Minister Ganesan said, while he was assured by the Secretariat that discussions were held, the recent criticism is proof that it has clearly not happened prompting him to halt the Bill till a fair discussion takes place with the participation of all involved.

However, after much criticism throughout the week civil society has now welcomed the decision made by Minister Ganesan to halt the amendments from being gazetted till discussions are held with members from various civil society organizations.

While the meeting is scheduled to be held on April 10, the Minister tweeting from his official profile yesterday said, the traitor or enemy tag on NGOs are no more while welcoming all to discuss the proposed amendments in a friendly manner.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer about the upcoming discussions and the halting of the Bill, Executive Director of Verite Research Dr. Nishan De Mel said, it is a positive move.

“If the government is listening to public concerns that is always a strength” he said, adding that therefore, the withdrawals is a positive move because it shows the government is responding to concerns that have been raised about the amendments that were proposed.