| by Laksiri Fernando 

( July 12, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in its own volition perhaps has come forward to give justification for the NGO restrictions announced by the Director/Registrar of the National Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organizations (NS-NGO). Anyone can guess who is behind this despicable effort. 

After the issue of the restrictive circular, even the Defense Ministry spokesman was shy in defending the circular. But there was no shame on the part of the MFA to do so. What I can surmise from this and other evidence available is that it is not the military per se that wants to step into politics. But it is the bankrupt politicians who want to drag the military into politics, perhaps for their survival. The wrath of the people are growing against the corrupt, sinister and opportunist politicians. 

The statement issued on 10 July 2014 titled “Government Action in Conformity with Universal Legal Framework” (Daily News, 11 July 2014) is a lie from the beginning. What universal legal framework that the Ministry or the Minister is talking about? The only valid legal framework is in the Universal Declaration (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). That framework assures the independent existence and functioning of the NGOs under ‘freedom of assembly and association.’ 

There is only one regional convention on NGOs directly and that is in Europe called “European Convention on the Recognition of the Legal Personality of International Non-Governmental Organizations” (1986). That is completely in agreement with the UDHR and the ICCPR and the title itself shows the purpose is to ‘recognize the legal personality’ of NGOs and not to restrict them. It is obvious that activities of any association should not contravene national security or public safety. Those limitations are there even in the UDHR and the ICCPR.

The MFA has quoted four documents which purported to cover the ‘powers’ or the ‘mandate’ of the Director/Registrar of the NS-NGO to issue such a circular but it is very clear that only the initial Act (1980) and the Amendment (1989) that covers the ‘mandate’ or the ‘powers’ of the said official. The regulations issued or a circular letter by another authority cannot enhance the mandate or the authority of the Director/Registrar. Leaving those for further contemplation of the legal luminaries, let me turn to what is politically dangerous in the MFA statement. 

It may be true that the NGOs are supposed to submit Action Plans to the Secretariat under the Regulations issued in 1989 but enhancement of such activities or the Action Plan is a matte for the membership of that organization and not to the Director or the Registrar. In any Action Plan there is always room for flexibility. It is absurd for the Director/Registrar to check whether all activities are according to the action plans. It is not the business of a government official regarding the activities of non-governmental organizations. The distinction and the distance should be kept clearly for the sake of democracy and independence of the latter while the rules of law should govern both. 

It is in such a predicament of government encroachment on people’s rights that Bertolt Brecht sarcastically asked in a poetic manner

Would it not be easier then
For the government
To dissolve people
And elect an-other?

It should be noted that this is the first time, to the best of my knowledge, such a circular was issued by the Registrar. Why at this juncture? The MFA statement says that the circular was issued “Unfortunately, having found some NGOs had exceeded their mandates.” If only some NGOs have exceeded the mandate, why then the circular was issued to all NGOs? 

Why the government is so obsessed with NGOs conducting ‘press conferences, workshops, training for journalists and dissemination of press releases’? 

The MFA also grumbles about the non-registration of some NGOs required by law emphasising that Sri Lanka is a ‘sovereign and an independent State.’ This appears as an overreaction to some of the valid concerns expressed by the international community, particularly the USA. The MFA is obviously preparing the background for another onslaught on the NGOs. 

The essence of the MFA statement is to claim that the NGOs should be accountable to the State, meaning the present Government. When the MFA states, that the government action is in conformity with the ‘universal legal framework’ it has some ironical resonance with some of the trends going in some countries, particularly Russia, in the Middle East (Egypt in particular), in North Africa and even in our region, like Pakistan. 

It was not long time ago (2012) that Putin brought what is called the “Foreign Agent Law” to control NGOs in Russia. The Egypt’s new law on NGOs is considered to be worse than the Hosni Mubarak period. Egypt recently arrested 27 NGO representatives. Pakistan’s draft ‘Foreign Contributions Act’ is also on the same lines. According to some experts, however, China on the contrarily, liberalizing NGO activities. Therefore, the trends are not one sided. 

Many have been asking what the NGOs or the people in Sri Lanka could do against the NS-NGO or MoD circular. One action would be for the NGOs to have “Press Conferences, Workshops, Training for Journalists and Dissemination of Press Releases” against the Circular.