Sri Lankan NGO Law Sparks Fears of Curtailed Freedoms

Sri Lanka's government proposes a new law regulating NGOs, sparking concerns about increased surveillance and restrictions on their activities. The draft law, shared with a short response window, has raised fears about erosion of civil society's ability to hold governments accountable.

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Sri Lankan NGO Law Sparks Fears of Curtailed Freedoms

Sri Lankan NGO Law Sparks Fears of Curtailed Freedoms

The Sri Lankan government has proposed a new law regulating Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), raising concerns among civil society groups about increased surveillance and restrictions on their activities. The draft "Non-Governmental Organizations Registration and Supervision Act," shared by the Director General of the National Secretariat for NGOs on January 30, 2024, would replace the existing Voluntary Social Services Act of 1980.

Why this matters: The proposed law has far-reaching implications for the freedom of expression and association in Sri Lanka, and could set a dangerous precedent for governments around the world to restrict the activities of NGOs. If passed, the law could lead to a significant erosion of civil society's ability to hold governments accountable and promote human rights.

The government's lack of transparency and consultation in drafting the new law has sparked fears that it could curtail freedom of expression and association for NGOs. Civil society organizations were given only three weeks to respond to the draft, which was not provided through an official or public release. "The informality with which the draft was shared fails to amount to an official or public release of the draft law," the article notes. Furthermore, "No commitment has been given to publicly engage in consultations over the draft law."

This is not the first attempt by the Sri Lankan government to regulate NGOs. In 2018, a draft law was approved by the Cabinet but withdrawn after objections from civil society groups. Following mass protests in 2022, a new Director General was appointed to the National Secretariat for NGOs, initiating another process to draft an NGO law.

The NGO Secretariat, which lacks a legislative basis, has been involved in approving annual plans, budgets, and progress reports of registered NGOs, leading to constraints on organizations in the North and East and surveillance by the military. The draft law proposes making registration under the Voluntary Social Services Act mandatory, a process that has become increasingly difficult. Banks have been instructed to refuse opening accounts for non-profits unless they submit VSSO registration.

The CSO NGO Collective, consisting of around 400 members, submitted recommendations for a draft law that have been largely ignored. As the United Nations recently published its Agenda for Protection to address systemic failings in its human rights responses in countries like Sri Lanka, the current global dynamics have eroded effective multilateral action and protection by UN entities in various contexts.

The Sri Lankan government's proposed NGO law has raised serious concerns among civil society organizations about increased regulation and surveillance that could restrict their freedom of expression and association. The lack of transparency and consultation in the drafting process, along with the difficult registration requirements, point to a troubling trend of shrinking civic space in the country. As the UN seeks to reinvigorate its commitment to protecting human rights, it remains to be seen how the international community will respond to developments that threaten the vital work of NGOs in Sri Lanka.

Key Takeaways

  • Sri Lankan government proposes new law to regulate NGOs, raising concerns about surveillance and restrictions.
  • Draft law could erode civil society's ability to hold governments accountable and promote human rights.
  • Government's lack of transparency and consultation sparks fears of curtailing freedom of expression and association.
  • Registration requirements could become more difficult, and banks may refuse to open accounts for non-profits.
  • International community's response to the proposed law will impact the future of NGOs in Sri Lanka and globally.