In a country where democratic rights are already sparse, Zimbabweans involved in private voluntary organizations (PVOs) may face even more intense scrutiny from the government. A PVO is very similar to what many colloquially refer to as an NGO or Non-Governmental Organization. These organizations are involved in humanitarian and advocacy work. The Zimbabwe parliament is currently working on the Private Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Amendment Bill, H.B. 10. The bill aims to amend the Private Voluntary Organizations Act, which requires PVOs to register with the government and gives the government some regulatory powers over the organizations. According to the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights, the original PVO act had the effect of limiting civil liberties for Zimbabweans. Should it pass, the new bill would likely limit those civil liberties even more.
The proposed bill, H.B. 10, was designed with the intent to help counterterrorism and anti-money laundering efforts in the country. Oddly enough, Zimbabwe already has laws that covers those issues. When you look at the provisions of the bill, it becomes clear that this bill has much less to do with preventing terrorism and money laundering and much more with increasing government control over PVOs.
If passed, the bill would give the government the power to label any PVO as “high risk” or “vulnerable” to abuse by terrorists. If labeled as such, the government could summarily change the leadership of the PVO and revoke their registration. The bill also requires that PVOs seek approval from the government before making any “material changes” to the organization. This would include, but is not limited to, changes in the organization’s leadership or funding sources. Lastly, PVOs are not allowed to show political support for any candidate or party. Each one of these provisions would curtail these organizations’ basic civil liberties, flying in the face of their own constitution.
Per the Zimbabwe constitution, “every person has the right to freedom of assembly and association, and the right not to assemble or associate with others.” According to the law, Zimbabweans are free to assemble and associate with whomever they like, free from governmental oppression. Unfortunately, the people of Zimbabwe are unable to enjoy this freedom that is owed to them.
Freedom House, a non-profit organization that researches democracy and indexes freedoms throughout the world, rates the Zimbabwe freedom of assembly as a one out of four, with four representing full enjoyment of those freedoms. In a similar fashion, Freedom House gave Zimbabwe the same rating for their treatment of NGOs and their ability to function freely.
If passed, this bill would only serve to make an unjust system even more unjust. This is not lost upon PVOs and organizations throughout Africa, as H.B. 10 has received widespread condemnation.
Organizations such as the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Citizens in Action Southern Africa, have come out against the bill as they fear it will have serious and negative consequences for the people of Zimbabwe. The African Commission for Human and People’s Rights have also come out against the bill, finding that the bill will limit civil liberties. Even the UN has taken notice, as several United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteurs have already condemned the bill and asked Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, to not sign the bill should it come to his desk for approval.
Despite the strong condemnation of H.B. 10, the government has not faltered in their position. It seems that the government and the ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, will do whatever it takes to pass this law, including the use of intimidation and violent tactics.
On March 1, 2022, party militants in the city of Masvingo were accused of threatening and physically attacking citizens who were protesting this bill. Several of the people beaten were members of Citizens in Action Southern Africa. This was not a one-time occurrence; the government has used violence since the initial public release of the bill’s contents, cracking down on those who have opposed it.
This bill and the government’s response to opposition to this bill serve as a clear example of a threat to democratic norms. Increasing control over Private Voluntary Organizations only serves the government and those in power. If passed, it would have the effect or eroding the autonomy of crucial organizations whose purpose is to help humanity and advocate for those who need aid. The provisions of the bill are a clear violation of a Zimbabwe citizen’s constitutional right to freedom of association and work against their best interests, assuming they are one of the millions of Zimbabweans facing an increasingly anti-democratic government.