A new Bangladeshi law that regulates foreign donations to local NGOs is drawing complaints from such groups who warn it could hamper their work in helping improve people’s lives.
The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Law 2016, which went into effect Oct. 13, requires groups that receive foreign funding to register with the government and seek governmental review of their planned activities, and it makes it an offense for NGOs to criticize Bangladesh’s constitution and national institutions like parliament and the judiciary, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Among other things, the law authorizes the government’s NGO affairs bureau to order the cancellation of non-governmental projects that it has reviewed, and it requires these groups to notify the bureau about any foreign travel connected with their projects in the country, HRW says.
And, according to a leader of the Bangladeshi branch of Transparency International, the law could hamper the voluntary and charitable activities of NGOs in Bangladesh because it might discourage people from contributing financially to them.
“This law is very risky for NGOs working in the fields of human rights and good governance. It will be misused if the ruling class is hurt by the NGOs’ activities,” Sultana Kamal, chairwoman of the board of trustees at Transparency International Bangladesh, told BenarNews.
Others representatives of local NGOs share her concerns.
“Many interested persons and donors will not be interested in sending funds due to the long and cumbersome bureaucratic procedure, harassment and corruption in the process,” Mahbubur Rahman, chairman of a local NGO in northern Bangladesh, told BenarNews. “So, this is sure that the development activities will shrink if the law is not reviewed.”
‘Parliament has passed the law’
HRW is calling on Bangladesh to repeal the law. The rights watchdog has opposed it since its introduction as a bill, saying it contained new elements such as outlawing “inimical” or “derogatory” remarks against the constitution, the legislature and other government bodies as an offense.
“These terms are undefined, and could be used to limit any criticism of the government whatsoever. Any NGO found by the NGO affairs bureau to have engaged in ‘inimical’ or ‘derogatory’ remarks can have its registration cancelled,” HRW said in a statement.
“The new law subjects NGOs to comprehensive and arbitrary government control over their activities, stifling freedom of expression and other rights. Bangladesh’s international donors, who provide critical development assistance, should publicly call for the repeal of the law,” HRW said.
Parliament passed the law on Oct. 5 and published details as required on Oct. 13. The director of the NGO affairs bureau did not specify a date for it to take effect.
“Parliament has passed the law and we will implement it,” Ashadul Islam, who heads the NGO affairs bureau, told BenarNews on Monday.
Meanwhile, lawmaker Suranjit Sengupta, who chairs a parliamentary standing committee that recommended the legislation, told BenarNews that it would not impede development-related activities.
“Subjected to registration from the NGO affairs bureau, the NGOs operate under some terms and conditions. The constitutional right of freedom of expression is for individuals, not for NGOs,” Sengupta said. “Making derogatory comments about the constitution and statutory bodies such as parliament, the judiciary, the attorney general’s office and others is an offense.”