New Zimbabwe restrictions target aid groups

A proposed law would limit foreign funding of churches and AIDS programs operating within the country.

In a land where opposition parties have been dubbed imperialists and foreign media are denounced as spies, charities and human rights organizations in Zimbabwe are now being vilified as "puppets" of foreign nations and threats to national security.

A new law proposed by the government last week and expected to pass through Parliament in October, would impose strict new regulations on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that threaten their ability to help the country's millions of hungry and HIV-positive citizens, say critics. One rule restricts organizations involved in human rights or governance issues from receiving foreign funding - defined as coming from any organization or business where even one person does not live in or is not a citizen of Zimbabwe.

The harsh rhetoric and onerous restrictions underscore the new level of political division that has come to a country that was once called a beacon of hope for fledgling African democracies.

"It's a very nasty piece of legislation," says Pius Ncube, Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, a human rights advocate and outspoken critic of Zimbabwe's government, in a telephone interview. "According to this, the church must beg them for permission to help people. They want to control everything so then they can exclude people who don't belong to their party."

The bill is seen as an attempt by the government to influence parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, although the country's main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), announced Wednesday that it would boycott the elections on the grounds that they could not be free and fair in the current political climate. The MDC accused President Robert Mugabe of stealing the 2002 presidential election, a charge he denies.

In recent years Zimbabwe, led by Mr. Mugabe who liberated the country from British colonialists in 1980, has spiraled into political violence, economic stagnation, and widespread hunger. According to estimates by the National Association of Nongovernmental Organizations in Zimbabwe, which stridently opposes the legislation, 70 to 80 percent of Zimbabweans live in poverty, 25 percent are HIV-positive, and 1 million children are orphans.

As conditions in the country worsened in recent years, the government began tightening its grip on critics: Opposition parties were persecuted and refused permission to meet, foreign reporters were expelled, and independent news sources shut down.

Now, as the country's 2005 parliamentary elections near, Zimbabwe's government has turned its eye to aid groups, which are accused of promulgating foreign values and furthering anti-Zimbabwean interests.

"The mischief which [the] government wants to [get] rid [of] is that of foreign donors employing local puppets ... to champion foreign values, much to the detriment of national security," stated a press release from the Ministry of Public Service published in Zimbabwe's Sunday Mail. Local NGOs, it added, "espouse policies of governments which are anti-Zimbabwe under cover of 'Human Rights' and 'democracy.' "

The government's ire seems to be directed most intensely at human rights and governance organizations like the Amani Trust, which helps victims of torture and documented government-sponsored violence during the 2002 election. The government says the group has tarnished Zimbabwe's image abroad. But Arnold Tsunga, director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, saysthe bill is drafted in such a way that it could be used to shut down almost any nongovernmental organization, even those doing humanitarian work.

The bill, for example, requires all NGOs to register with the government or cease operation. When a similar law was passed requiring media organizations to apply for licenses, opposition and independent papers were simply denied licenses. The ban on foreign funding as well, he argued, could be defined broadly to include almost any NGO.

"This in effect will criminalize the work of NGOs," Mr. Tsunga says, adding that cutting off foreign funding will devastate local organizations, since rapid inflation has made the local currency almost worthless. "There is no internal capacity to fund this work."

This would not be the first instance where the Zimbabwean government has tried to manipulate charity and humanitarian assistance for its own purposes. The World Food Program has been feeding people in the country for more than two years after drought and a controversial land-redistribution program severely reduced Zimbabwe's ability to feed its people. But this year the government says it no longer needs international aid, even though independent estimates indicate that nearly 5 million people continue to be short of food.

Although critics say the new law clearly violates Zimbabwe's Constitution, most have little hope that it can be halted or substantially amended since the government controls a strong majority in Parliament.

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