The National Peace Council in a statement yesterday (2 April) welcomed the decision of National Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Languages Minister Mano Ganesan to withdraw proposed Amendments to the Voluntary Social Service Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act, No. 31 of 1980, following representations made to him by over 130 civil society organisations.
The Minister took this decision at a meeting held with representatives of these CSOs presided over by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. At this meeting, the Prime Minister reassured those present that the Government’s intention was not to control NGO work, or make civil society dependent on the Government. He requested the CSOs present to nominate seven members who could meet with the Government and develop a sustainable solution that would protect national interests and the independence of civil societies.
Compulsory registration of civil societies is present only in fascist totalitarian countries. Democracy guarantees freedom of association and assembly. Nonetheless, previous Sri Lankan Governments too have sought to restrict the freedom of civil society organisations. Draft legislation to this end was prepared by the previous Government in 2011, when the National NGO Secretariat was under the Ministry of Defence. In this context, the Cabinet decision to approve the draft Amendments to the Voluntary Social Service Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act, No. 31 of 1980 generated widespread opposition within civil society. The amendments sought to expand the scope of the law to bring all voluntary associations, even village-based ones, within the direct supervisory purview of the Government.
Minister Ganesan explained that the Government’s intention was to strengthen the National NGO Secretariat, which would be a focal point for all civil society organisations. He said that provision of legal personality to CSOs by registration with the NGO Secretariat could enhance their capacities to mobilise resources. Minister Ganesan also said that Sri Lanka had obligations under international law to ensure that terrorist financing did not take place within the shores of the country.
According to the draft Amendments, all voluntary associations, even those legally registered elsewhere, would have had to register themselves with the National NGO Secretariat. The proposed Amendments would have empowered the National NGO Secretariat to launch investigations into CSO activities without any judicial oversight, and to enter the premises of an organisation without advance notice to conduct inspections. It also sought to prohibit them from changing their registered address without the approval of the National NGO Secretariat, and giving financial support to other CSOs without such approval.
The targeting of the entirety of civil society with a special law is both over-broad and discriminatory, and is democratically unacceptable. In a democracy, the people are free to organise themselves for any purpose, as long as it is not in pursuit of illegal activities. The National Peace Council affirms that civil society organisations should be subjected to the legal structure of the country in the same manner as the business and public sectors, without also being subjected to special surveillance and monitoring by any specialised Government agency. We also affirm that compulsory registration is not acceptable in a free and democratic society which enjoys the freedom of association as a constitutional right, and the decision whether or not to register with a particular Government agency should be left to their members.