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Bangladesh: Controversial New Law Regulating Work and Activities of Foreign NGOs

(Nov. 25, 2016) On October 5, 2016, Bangladesh’s Parliament passed a controversial new law called the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Law 2016, which regulates the work and activities of foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  (Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, 2016, Act. No. 43 of 2016, Bangladesh Parliament website (in Bangla).)  The new law came into effect on October 13 and repealed the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Ordinance, 1978 (Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Division of the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs website) and the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Ordinance, 1982 (Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Division of the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs website.)

Section 14 of the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act of 2016, lists the offenses that may cause cancellation or withholding of registration of an NGO by the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB).  These include anti-state activities, making malicious and derogatory statements against the Constitution and constitutional bodies of Bangladesh, subversive activities, financing and sponsorship of terror and militancy, and trafficking in women and children.  Section 16 of the Act grants the NGOAB the authority to cancel or withhold the registration of an NGO for committing any of these offenses.

Appeals against decisions made under section 16 may be filed within 30 days from the date of the decision, according to section 17 of the Act.  The 30-day time limitation may be extended to up to 45 days, if there are “valid reasons” for it.  The Secretary to the Office of the Prime Minister will decide on the appeal of an aggrieved entity within 30 days; the Secretary’s decision will be final.  (Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, 2016,§ 17.)

As summarized by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Act also requires that “NGOs seeking to receive or use foreign funds must register with the NGOAB, submit reports regularly and seek prior approval from the NGOAB for all planned activities before receiving such grants.”  It “empowers the NGOAB to inspect, monitor and assess NGO activities at the NGOAB’s discretion, and NGOs will need approval and security clearance to hire foreign specialists and advisers.”  (Press Release, FIDH, Bangladesh: Parliament Adopts NGO Law Aimed at Eradicating Any Critical Voice (Oct. 6, 2016); Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, 2016, §§ 3, 6, 7 & 10.)

Reaction to the Act

The granting of authority to the NGOAB to cancel or withhold registration of an NGO for “making derogatory comments about the Constitution and constitutional institutions” of Bangladesh, including the Offices of the President, the Prime Minister, the Parliament, or the Supreme Court, is particularly controversial. (Id.)  The Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh, the Bangladesh chapter of Transparency International which was registered in 1998 as an NGO dedicated to countering corruption, stated that

[t]he clause in the law is a way of intimidating NGOs working on governance and human rights.  Their main job is to be critical of government and government bodies when they are not delivering according to their mandates, and they are supposed to raise a critical voice when that happens.  (David Bergman, Concerns Raised over New Bangladesh NGO Law, AL-JAZEERA (Oct. 20, 2016); About Us, Transparency International Bangladesh website (last visited Nov. 22, 2016).)

International human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and local activists have also expressed deep concern over the new law. Amnesty International said in a statement that “[t]he law would not only hinder the ability of human rights defenders and civil society organizations to seek and secure resources but it would also expand the government’s ability to unlawfully interfere with their work and arbitrarily cancel their registrations.”  (Amnesty International Urges Bangladesh to Repeal Foreign Donations Regulation Law, BDNEWS24 (Oct. 18, 2016).)  Brad Adams, Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, expressed the view that

[t]he Foreign Donations Law is a shocking new initiative by a repressive government to make civil society toe the government line, or risk being arbitrarily shut down … .  The government claims it is committed to freedom of expression and pluralism, but then passes a law that would make an authoritarian regime proud.  (Human Rights Watch, Bangladesh: New Law Will Choke Civil Society (Oct. 19, 2016).)

However, Suranjit Sengupta, the chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, rejected the criticism and told reporters:

Freedom of expression and freedom of thinking are only for citizens.  NGOs don’t have this right.  They do not have the right to criticise parliament or any constitutional body… .  A foreign body cannot be abusive about a sovereign parliament … NGOs will have to work under this law if they want to work … .”  (David Bergman, supra; see also NGOs Can’t Have Right to Freedom of Expression, DAILY STAR (Oct. 20, 2016).)