SRI LANKA: AHRC’s position on the proposed law for NGO registration under the Ministry of Defence
The Asian Human Rights Commission wishes to clarify its position regarding the controversy about the government’s proposal for a law to force the registration of non-governmental organisations with a National Secretariat functioning under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence and Urban Development.
There are two separate issues involved:
A) NGO registration under Agency of Ministry of Defence
The Ministry of Defence should not have any power over the functioning of any civil society organisations, which includes non-governmental organisations, for the following reasons:
The sole purpose of the Ministry of Defence is to control all opposition against the Rajapaksa government. This Ministry will naturally use its power against any sector of society, to cripple and destroy every form of freedom of expression and association that has, as its aim, the protection and promotion of people’s interests as against the authoritarian inclinations of the government. Any additional power given to the Ministry will be used to destroy the freedom of NGOs, and they will be unable to function in a manner compatible with democracy, the rule of law, and human rights;
The Ministry of Defence stands for impunity. And NGOs, by definition, are committed to ensuring accountability and opposing impunity. The Ministry’s commitment to preserving impunity does not need much illustration. It has a horrendous record of using violence against citizens. This includes killings, kidnappings, forced disappearances, and violent attacks against any demonstrators. In all such serious violations of law, the Ministry has protected the perpetrators of violence. In fact, there is overwhelming public opinion within Sri Lanka that the Ministry masterminds these operations. Therefore, there is incompatibility between the Ministry and organisations whose mandate emanates from a duty to defend the basic democratic rights and freedoms of the people. It does not require an imagination to comprehend that the Ministry will use all its authority to crush those demanding accountability for human rights violations. Any move to grant power to the Ministry over the functioning of NGOs is manifestly unjust and done without good faith;
The Ministry of Defence cannot claim that its own actions and expenses have been conducted transparently, as required by the basic principles of constitutional law. The Ministry has more to hide than all Sri Lankan NGOs put together. Handing ‘watchdog of transparency’ responsibilities to the Ministry is hypocrisy, and certainly not in good faith.
In sum, a move to grant any power over the functioning of NGOs to the Ministry of Defence would be, as the saying goes, asking the fox to guard the chickens.
A) Transparency of Non-Governmental Organisations
AHRC wishes to clarify that its opposition to the Ministry of Defence having control over NGOs does not compromise its position that all NGOs and all civil society organisations need to observe the highest standards of transparency. NGOs in particular, as they are supposed to receive funds from foreign donors, have an extra obligation to behave impeccably on the subject of transparency.
Foreign funds are, in fact, donations given by taxpayers from different countries. The obligation to spend every cent of such donations for their intended purposes is among the highest obligations of any organisation that claims to uphold the interests of people. Under normal circumstances, such foreign funds are also earmarked for helping the poor. To scrounge any of such donations for purposes other than that for which they were originally intended cannot be justified by any standard of morality. On this issue, the public and the government, has a right to demand impeccable behaviour. Such a demand is compatible with the freedom of organisations to function for their objectives within a framework of democracy and the rule of law.
The AHRC also wishes to emphasise that no NGO should consider it to be their obligation to defend any other NGO that has violated the rules of trust by not observing their obligation to uphold transparency. As NGOs demand the highest standards of transparency and accountability from governments and the public sector, it is their obligation to stand up for the same when it comes to other NGOs.
That said, the AHRC wishes to emphasise that any claim for transparency and accountability on the part of the Rajapaksa government is hollow and lacks credibility. It is globally known that this is one of the most corrupt governments. A clear manifestation of this corruption is the manner in which the Commission against Bribery and Corruption has been destroyed under the Rajapaksa regime.
The AHRC has repeatedly stated that Sri Lanka is in dire need of a genuine agency committed to inquiry and prosecution of offences relating to corruption. AHRC has constantly pointed out that an agency similar to the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) in Hong Kong is the only way to allow all Sri Lankan institutions to perform with the highest levels of responsibility, accountability, and transparency.
The move by the government to introduce a law obligating NGOs to register under an agency of the Ministry of Defence is another of those ugly moments in Sri Lanka where a government that is naked demands that others should be clothed.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.