Despite the Burundian government’s efforts, the human rights situation in the country remains a matter of concern. During the presentation of its report, the Commission of Inquiry underscored the necessity to take more significative actions to pave the way towards sociopolitical stabilization and democracy.
Given the existence of several laws which currently regulate the activities of NGOs and defenders in Nigeria, the Nigerian legislature should desist from adopting an ‘Act for the Establishment of the Non-Governmental Organizations Regulatory Commission for the Supervision, Co-ordination and Monitoring of Non-Governmental Organizations, Civil Society Organisations and related matters’: indeed, such a regulation poses a dangerous threat to the operation and advancement of civil society organisations and defenders in the country, and facilitates the legislature’s quest to stifle dissent despite the guarantee of freedom of expression and association provided by the Constitution.
This is not the first time that Nigeria tries to pass a law which will only add more constraints to the work of civil society. Since 2014, several Bills have been presented to the National Assembly for review, all with the aim of controlling NGOs’ financing and regulating their work. These laws include the Bill to Regulate the Acceptance and Utilization of Financial/Material Contributions of Donor Agencies to Voluntary Organizations of 2014 and the Civil Society Regulatory Commission (Establishment) Bill or Civil Society Commission of Nigeria Bill of 2016. These Bills coincide with Nigeria’s vote against the Human Rights Council’s landmark resolution on the protection of human rights defenders addressing economic, social and cultural rights, in March 2016.
The draft NGO Bill, containing 7 chapters and 58 clauses, was introduced in the House of Representatives by the late Umar Buba Jibril- the former Representative of the Kogi State- on 2 June 2016 and passed the second reading stage on 14 July 2016. It was introduced based on assertions of fraudulent activities by some NGOs, including claims that some Nigerians have registered NGOs, solicited funds and absconded, while others have been used to fund terrorist activities, necessitating a law to facilitate accountability and transparency. However, the existence of several laws fulfilling the same purpose- including the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) of 2004; the Companies Income Tax (Amendment) Act (CITA) of 2007; the Tax and Levies (Approved List for Collection) Act of 1998; the National Planning Commission Act of 2013; the Terrorism (Prevention) Act of 2011; and the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act of 2012– starkly contradicts the alleged lacuna.
While there is uncertainty about whether and how the Bill will progress following the unfortunate passing of Umar Buba Jibril in March, the larger issue of over-regulation remains and must be addressed. The effect of restrictive legislation, for example, the Terrorism (Prevention) Act 2011, is the criminalisation of dissent. The government has used the law to threaten those who exercise freedom of expression with a criminal charge for spreading ‘hate speech, anti-government and anti-security information’, all terms lacking a clear definition.
ISHR is also deeply concerned by the content of the Bill. It imposes tight controls on the registration, funding and operation of civil society organisations under false pretenses of enabling and encouraging them to fulfil their objectives and ensuring their accountability, facilitating the gradual erosion of civil society space. This can be identified in article 8, which empowers the proposed Commission to ‘coordinate’ the work of all national and international NGOs operating in Nigeria, and to provide them with ‘policy guidelines for harmonizing their activities to the national development plan of Nigeria’.
In other words, article 8 binds the interests of NGOs to the interests of the State, stripping them of their autonomy, dictating their work and leaving little to no room for dissent or the exercise of fundamental freedoms, particularly the right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly and association under sections 39 and 40 of the Constitution.
Furthermore, NGO funding is subject to excessive control under article 29, stipulating that organisations must submit details of funds pledged by donors for project implementation. This administrative nightmare forces NGOs to rely on the political will and good faith of the government to allow them to effectively do their work.
The Nigerian legislature is rushing to over-regulate the non-profit sector while neglecting proper and adequate implementation of existing legislation and active civil society support and protection. None of the provisions of the draft Bill refers to the importance of the work of human rights defenders and the pressing need to protect them against work-related attacks. A stepping stone to remedying this would be the enactment of a national law for the promotion and the protection of human rights defenders, enabling them to work in a safe environment.
Instead of shrinking NGO space by controlling their every move, thereby restricting their work, Nigeria should follow the examples of Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and more recently Mali, where a national law for the protection of human rights defenders has been enacted.
While acknowledging that steps to prevent threats to national security need to be taken, such measures should not be at the expense of civil society organisations, defenders, or more broadly the protection of human rights. Since the Islamic armed group Boko Haram launched a spate of violent acts and terrorist attacks in parts of the country, defenders have been caught in a crossfire between the armed group and the security forces. For this reason, the State should focus on reinforcing the protection of human rights defenders.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that prominent human rights lawyer Femi Falana has branded the draft Bill ‘the worst piece of legislation’ in Nigeria’s history, adding that it threatens the existence of free and independent civil society in the country. A threat to freedom of expression is ultimately a threat to the citizens on whose behalf civil society organisations and human rights defenders advocate. The Nigerian government must keep this in mind if it truly strives to foster democracy, development and good governance for the Nigerian people.
Contact: Adélaïde Etong Kame, Africa Advocacy Consultant, [email protected]
Photo: FlickR/Shiraz Chakera
This week in an online event, 10 candidate States publicly spoke to an audience of around 200 people on their pledges as incoming Human Rights Council members for 2022 – 2024. They also faced questions on pressing human rights issues from both States and civil society organisations.
ISHR welcomes the Council’s historic consensus decision, led by the Africa Group, to adopt a resolution mandating an independent international expert mechanism to address systemic racism and to promote racial justice and equality for Africans and people of African descent. The adoption of this resolution is testament to the resilience, bravery and commitment of victims, their families, their representatives and anti-racism defenders globally.
At the 47th session of the Human Rights Council, ISHR along with the Informal Sector Service Center presented a joint statement in Nepal’s Universal Periodic Review expressing concern about the situation of human rights defenders in the country.
Faced with the appropriation of their name, Peruvian NGO Madres en Acción is pushing back, filing a legal action to recover it. In an amicus brief in support of the action, ISHR argues that trademark law is being used to attack defenders and this must stop.
With three more human rights defenders detained arbitrarily in recent days, once again the Human Rights Council was asked to do more to put pressure on Venezuela to allow dissenting voices in the country to be heard. Independent civil society makes a critical contribution to the construction of societies built on the respect of human rights.
In the first case on violence against trans people heard by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Court held Honduras responsible for the transfemicide of human rights defender Vicky Hernández.
Public servants, journalists, and indigenous defenders have suffered targeting and reprisals from an increasingly brazen government, confirming the urgent need to adopt legal mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders.
ISHR joins human rights organisations from across the globe in calling for the unconditional and immediate release of prominent Bahraini human rights defender Abdul-Hadi al-Khawaja, who turned 60 on 5 April.
The Martin Ennals Foundation has granted Yu Wensheng, a leading Chinese human rights lawyer, the 2021 Martin Ennals Award. Lawyer Yu was among the three finalists to the Award selected by a jury of ten global human rights organisations - among which ISHR -, along with Loujain AlHathloul from Saudi Arabia and Soltan Achilova from Turkmenistan.
It's difficult to encapsulate such a complex year in a word, but "interconnected" is one that comes to mind when reflecting on 2020. We are proud to have remained deeply interconnected with defenders and to have supported, protected and amplified their work at the national, regional and international levels. With them, the "essential workers" of our times, we strive for a 2021 full of freedom, equality, dignity and justice.
ISHR and NGO partners warmly welcome the UN Committee against Torture’s decision to host their first review of a State party since the beginning of the global pandemic, and the consideration of individual complaints which had also been suspended. With this decision, all UN Treaty Bodies have now taken steps to ensure the continuity of their mandate, including periodic reviews, which are crucial to State accountability.