A key Sri Lankan civil society group, the CSO-NGO Collective, has clashed with the government over a proposed law regulating non-governmental organizations (NGOs). While the government claims the legislation, aimed at “Registration and Supervision,” has been under development since 2005, the Collective argues it was blindsided by the draft and demands wider consultations before it progresses. The group, advocating for fundamental freedoms, questions the need for a separate law when existing frameworks already cover diverse civil society actors, and raises concerns about the lack of transparency and inclusivity in the drafting process.

CSO – NGO Collective’s engagement on the proposed Draft Act on Non-governmental Organizations (Registration and Supervision)

CSO – NGO Collective is a network consisting of organisations and individual activists, formed to address challenges faced by civil society organizations and NGOs and to promote and protect fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression. Previously, in being made aware of the State’s intention to introduce a legislation governing diverse civil society, the Collective had discussions with the Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organizations and presented proposals with a clear position that there must be protection of fundamental freedoms and civic space in Sri Lanka.

On 30th January 2024, 12 representatives from 6 districts of the core group of the Collective, met the Director General (DG) of the Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organizations, on invitation from the Secretariat, an institution functioning under the Ministry of Public Security. The DG had stated the objective of this meeting was to share with us the proposed draft of the proposed Non-governmental Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act.

Despite our request, the draft was not shared with us before the meeting. During the meeting, hard copies of the proposed draft law in English were shared with us and is available here. We are making unofficial Sinhalese and Tamil translations online.

The DG explained that this process was initiated in 2005 and that there were several discussions between the Collective and the present subject Minister and him since 2022 September on the subject of a new legislation. He also referred to a previous draft that was withdrawn and updated the group about next steps. These would include incorporating feedback and finalizing draft, seeking opinion of the Attorney General about constitutionality, cabinet approval and publishing as a gazette.

We highlighted the process we had engaged in since about 2018 which included engaging in countrywide consultations leading to submitting a draft law and guiding principles for a legal framework for not-for-profit sector to previous and present government. We emphasized this process was initiated at the request of the present President and then Prime Minister, and that the draft law and guidelines were also submitted to the present Minister one year ago, in January 2023.

Whilst we submitted our recommendations considering the process undertaken by the State, given the present environment and context, the Collective has continuously stood by position that diverse civil society organisations must not be coerced to come within a single law when the present legal framework provides for civil society to legally register under diverse mechanisms in accordance with the fundamental freedoms enshrined in our constitution.

We requested the DG to publish the present draft in English, Sinhalese and Tamil on an official website and request for feedback, making the process transparent and open to all interested and concerned persons and groups. We emphasized the importance of following best practices in law-making such as the Right to Information Act and avoiding undemocratic law-making practices such as with the Online Safety Act. We also requested not to submit a draft to Cabinet and Gazette until widespread and meaningful consultations (rather than limited and tokenistic) are held and there is a clear and transparent process for submissions to be included and process is made accountable to those participating in and contributing. The DG could not commit to any of our above requests during the meeting.

We emphasized that consultations of the state on the draft law should not be limited to our Collective alone, as we do not represent all of civil society and NGOs in Sri Lanka. But we committed to share the draft that has been given to us with our network and make it publicly available. As there were no clear commitment to translate the present draft, we also committed to do informal translations of the draft law and make them publicly available to enable more engagement.

We highlighted translating the document to Sinhalese and Tamil, doing careful study, holding consultations with our large network and drafting feedback will take time and requested three months to provide feedback. But the DG requested feedback in three weeks.

We hope to share with DG our observations on the draft law based on our constitution and international standards related to human rights and fundamental freedoms, particularly on freedoms of association and expression. We will be doing this considering also the broader political-legal context of repressive laws and reprisals against civil society activists, lawyers, journalists and others.

On behalf of CSO Collective,
Maithreyi Rajasingam
Philip Dissanayake ,
Rohana Hettiarachchie
N. Harsha Jayarathna

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