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Proposed Kenyan legislation restricting civil society must be rejected – UN rights experts

Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya.
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya.

Proposed Kenyan legislation restricting civil society must be rejected – UN rights experts

A group of independent United Nations human rights experts today urged the Kenyan Government to reject legislation that would impose severe restrictions on civil society.

The bill, which was presented to Parliament on 30 October, would amend Kenya’s Public Benefit Organization Act of 2012 and grant the Government “sweeping and potentially arbitrary powers” to deny registration for such organizations, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), according to a news release issued by the experts.

“The bill is an evidence of a growing trend in Africa and elsewhere, whereby governments are trying to exert more control over independent groups using so-called ‘NGO laws’,” the experts warned.

The bill would also cap foreign funding at 15 per cent of their total budgets and channel all their funding through a government body, rather than going directly to beneficiary organizations.

“The amendments to the regulations of associations contained in the draft law could have profound consequences for civil society organizations in Kenya, including for those involved in human rights work, and could deter individuals from expressing dissenting views,” stressed the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya.

She called on Kenyan authorities to immediately suspend the legislative process of the bill, and to re-evaluate it in line with international human rights norms and standards, and urged them to further consult civil society in a meaningful way, and pay due attention to their concerns.

The Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, noted that “the proposed amendments lack clarity and could lead to restrictive interpretations that would unduly limit the rights to freedom of association, and opinion and expression.”

The bill “opens the door to undue State interference in civil society affairs,” said the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, noting that it allows a closer presidential oversight of the board commanding the associations’ regulatory body.

“The authorities should not be entitled to condition any decisions and activities of the associations,” he stressed. “The State should not have the capacity to ‘register and de-register’ associations as it is the case with this bill. Instead, associations should be free to determine their statutes, structure and activities and make decisions without State interference.”

The experts drew special attention to the provisions on funding of associations, which create administrative barriers to accessing funding, compromise associations’ independence and run counter to international law and best practices.

Independent experts, or special rapporteurs, are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.