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Zimbabwe’s draconian anti-NGO bill cannot be justified by invoking Financial Action Task Force demands

Zimbabwe’s draconian anti-NGO bill cannot be justified by invoking Financial Action Task Force demands
Zimbabweans and South Africans march to the Zimbabwean embassy in Pretoria on 14 July 2016, calling for a better Zimbabwe. (Photo: Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius)

Zimbabwe doesn’t have any pretext of legitimacy when it seeks to overregulate and control NGO activity within the country through the Private Voluntary Organisations Bill. The Financial Action Task Force makes no such demands of Zimbabwe.

An extraordinary joint communication was issued by four United Nations special rapporteurs in December 2021. It declared: 

“If adopted into law in its current version, this bill will have grave consequences for the exercise of civil and political rights, including the right to freedom of association, of Private Voluntary Organisations in Zimbabwe.”

It is exceptional that four different UN rapporteurs would pronounce on an impending law having application only in a single jurisdiction.

But the bill – the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill 2021 (PVO Bill) – has grave implications for NGOs in Zimbabwe, seeking to strangle civil society under the guise of complying with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations.

It has been passed by Zimbabwe’s parliament and is merely awaiting presidential assent before being made law. In 2004, a similar bill was passed by parliament but never signed into law by then president Robert Mugabe. The snap passage of the bill through parliament over the December holidays suggests it won’t languish on President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s desk.

Here in South Africa, the risk of FATF greylisting was also used to try to restrict NGO operations – draft legislation requiring mandatory registration of all non-profit organisations (NPOs) operating in the country.

Civil society organisations were vociferous in pushing back against these requirements which would not only have created unnecessary hardship and additional bureaucratic hurdles, but would also have threatened the possibility of deregistration and closure of those NPOs falling foul of the relevant authorities.

During the consultation process, not only were civil society’s concerns heard and addressed, but National Treasury actioned these concerns in the final amendments to the law to confine mandatory registration to a much smaller group of NPOs based on specific risk assessment.


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Through the consistent efforts of civil society driving a rigorous engagement of all stakeholders, effective changes were implemented.

Although there is still much collaboration needed to align all legislation governing NPOs, Treasury is to be applauded for its willingness to engage with civil society and adapt legislation accordingly.

Read in Daily Maverick:Zimbabwe civil society faces moment of reckoning

This constructive engagement should not end with the current amendments and should serve as an example to other government departments of how civil society can aid in important policy formation.

Underlying both states’ actions is supposed compliance with FATF recommendations. The FATF is the global money laundering and terrorist financing “watchdog”.

Failure to comply with its recommendations has serious consequences for the state in question, including being greylisted, and for developing countries especially this significantly impacts their ability to access aid, trade and foreign investment. 

Pressure on FATF

However, the UN has been clear that “the application and enforcement of ‘soft law’ counterterrorism standards, such as the FATF recommendations, should not function in a de facto undermining of binding international law norms”.

Indeed, the FATF’s past practice in this regard has been deeply disturbing: it having encouraged or endorsed highly restrictive NPO laws in jurisdictions such as Egypt, Tunisia, Myanmar, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. 

In the face of coordinated global civil society pressure, FATF has revised its recommendations so that it now exhorts countries to engage in risk assessment processes to determine more precisely whether particular NPOs are at risk of terrorist financing abuse and to employ measures proportional to the risk targeted only at those at-risk NPOs.

Still, calls continue for greater transparency and civil society participation in FATF assessments of individual countries.

What is clear is that Zimbabwe doesn’t have any pretext of legitimacy when it seeks to overregulate and control NGO activity within the country through the PVO Bill. The FATF makes no such demands of Zimbabwe.

But the FATF itself should be especially concerned not to have its processes employed as an ostensible pretext by Zimbabwe and make this clear in its pronouncements. DM

Sophie Smit is a legal researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation.

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