Our Voices

New NGO Law in Bangladesh Will Significantly Restrict Civic Space

(October 7, 2016 | Washington, D.C.) Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights condemned the passage on October 5th of the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activity) Regulation Act 2016 in Bangladesh. The law provides for a series of highly restrictive measures that will significantly limit the ability of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate in the country, in violation of the national constitution and the State’s international human rights law obligations.

The draft of the law has long been criticized by national and international observers. In 2015, Maina Kiai, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, urged the Bangladeshi Parliament not to pass the legislation, calling it “deeply worrying.” National human rights NGOs, including Odhikar, whose General Secretary Adilur Rahman Khan received the 2013 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, have expressed their concern as to the effect that the laws enforcement would have on independent human rights organizations.

“This law was designed expressly to allow the government to pick and choose favorites among the thousands of NGOs doing essential development and human rights work throughout Bangladesh,” said Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “On a whim, a governmental body that answers only to the Prime Minister will now be able to single out NGOs for special harassment or closure. NGOs that are critical of the government will find their work stifled and their voices silenced, all in violation of fundamental human rights.”

Among other restrictive measures, the law prohibits organizations from receiving foreign donations without prior governmental approval; requires all organizations who receive foreign donations to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau; requires prior approval from the NGO Affairs Bureau for all projects that are funded by foreign donations; provides for penalties if the NGO Affairs Bureau concludes that an NGO is engaging in activity that is “illegal or harmful for the country;” and provides the NGO Affairs Bureau with the power to deregister NGOs if they make malicious or derogatory statements about the constitution and constitutional bodies of the country.

“The unchecked power for the NGO Affairs Bureau and the broad scope of this law make it virtually impossible for Bangladesh to enforce these provisions in compliance with its international human rights law obligations,” said David McKean, Asia Program Officer for RFK Partners for Human Rights. “Bangladesh should be building an environment that enables the vital work of NGOs throughout the country, not putting in place measures to limit their ability to operate.”

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights calls on the Bangladeshi government to immediately repeal the law and instead, adopt the necessary measures for development and human rights NGOs to operate in an enabling environment that complies with international standards.