Restrictions on the operation of civil society organizations in Africa violate freedom of association

Esete B FarisAuthor: Esete B Faris
LLM (Human Rights & Democratisation in Africa) student, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria

The role of civil society cannot be underestimated in Africa. Despite the fact that several governments are suppressive, there is widespread circulation of information on human rights abuses and successes. This is attributable to the immense role that civil society plays. Without a civil society in Africa, the world would not hastily recognise the shortcomings of African leaders’ regimes.

It is undeniable that an independent and effective civil society contributes to the protection and promotion of democracy and human rights in a country. The role of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) is to serve as a watchdog at the domestic level and international level. This implies that the right to freedom of association is essential for CSOs to operate effectively and efficiently.

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 22 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Cultural Rights all guarantee the right to freedom of association. Most African countries have ratified these international conventions and are therefore bound to comply with the provisions of the conventions. Often, however, governments violate the provisions of the conventions.

At the regional level, article 10 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights guarantees the right to freedom of association. Article 12(3) of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, which entered into force in February this year after ratification by 15 states,obliges state parties to take all appropriate measures to create a conducive environment for the operation of CSOs. African governments are obliged to ensure that these rights are enjoyed without arbitrary limitations.

Despite the contribution of CSOs, manygovernments continue to curtail the functioning of such organisations, acting contrary to the international obligation. Governments put legislative and administrative restrictions on the formation, registration and activities of CSOs. As a result, the work of CSOs is ineffective in human right protection and monitoring activities.Governments in many cases classify CSOs as political parties. They fear that CSO intend to overthrow, expose and intimidate the ruling party. Most African leaders seldom accept the contributions that CSOs make. Their reports on governance and respect for human rights are not used by the government as a positive feedback that can be used to improve the situation of human rights in the country.

Although the right to freedom of association is guaranteed in most African constitutions, this right is not absolute in most legislation. This is not problematic by itself as the nature of the right of freedom of association allows such limitations. International and regional instruments that provide for the right also stipulate general limitations such as consideration of the rights of others, public interest, and public order and safety. These limitations have to be ‘necessary’ and acceptable in any ‘democratic society’ to be legitimate. States have to take cognisance of these international standards and the limitations adopted by their national legislations should be in conformity with these general rules. However, several governments have ridden on the non-absolute nature of the right to curtail the enjoyment of freedom of association. Governments continue to intimidate and impose immense restrictions on CSOs in order to confine their productivity.

Police arrested 12 Woza members who were on a peaceful march

Restrictions imposed on CSOs include: mandatory or cumbersome registration, intensive monitoring by the government, restriction on the operation of foreign CSOs and prohibition of receipt of foreign funds.In order to disguise their human rights violations,governments continue establishing new mechanisms for curtailing the active role of CSOs.

In a report entitled ‘The limitation of the right to freedom of association in Africa’ we cover violations of freedom of association in four African states: Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Zimbabwe. Laws governing freedom of association in these countries lay down strict procedures on the formation and activities of associations which have disabled the CSO’s work and even resulted in the termination of CSOs in some instances. The restrictions that exist in the law and in practice extend from complex registration procedure and banning of foreign funded associations to an absolute prohibition on engagement in advocacy works. It should be noted that these restrictions and limitations are not exclusive to these countries only rather reference is made to them only to show the practical implications of such restrictive approaches. For the purpose of brevity, the report focuses particularly on limitations on the right of CSOs to receive funding from abroad.

About the Author:
Esete B Faris is currently a postgraduate student in the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, on the LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa Programme. Before joining the LLM Programme she was working as Human Rights Monitoring expert in Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

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4 Comments on “Restrictions on the operation of civil society organizations in Africa violate freedom of association”

  1. ashwanee says:

    It is sad to see that restrictions which should be used when ‘necessary’ are relied upon by the government to defeat the whole notion of freedom of association. Governments such as ethiopia with its NGO laws, make restrictions to freedom of association a claw back clause to protect their own political interests. This article is food for thought for international and regional human rights systems to devise a proper guideline on the restrictions to freedom of association and set the benchmarks as to when it is ‘necessary’ and acceptable in any democratic society.

  2. Albab says:

    A very informative article on how governments use legislation to once again restrict fundamental human rights, like the right to freedom of association.

    Indeed freedom of association is vital for the proper functioning of CSOs, which in turn is crucial for the promotion and protection of human rights.

    I recommend that everyone read the whole report (by simply clicking on the link in the last paragraph of this article) to have a better grasp of how governments use restrictive CSO laws to discourage their effective functioning and existence as a whole.

  3. Albab says:

    Very pretty picture btw 🙂

  4. Teshager says:

    I hope this is a critical milestone….well done dear!


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