There is growing concern among nongovernmental organizations in Bangladesh that civil society space in the country is shrinking, especially with the introduction of a draft law regulating nongovernmental organizations.
Civil society concerns and the overall situation of human rights in Bangladesh were the focus of a July 20 hearing hosted by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress. The panel heard testimonies from representatives of the U.S. Department of State and the New York-based Human Rights Watch, among other groups.
“One particularly worrying issue is a draft law purporting to regulate foreign donations to Bangladeshi NGOs,” said John Sifton, HRW’s director of Asia advocacy, explaining that provisions and vague language in the bill could be used “as a cudgel to silence or neuter civil society groups whose work is out of favor with the government.”
Local NGOs themselves have expressed “vociferous complaints” about the bill in a recent consultation with the government, Sifton added. Aside from targeting critical groups, there are fears the law will be used to extract bribes, he said.
The proposed bill, dubbed Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act 2011, was introduced in January 2012 for public consultation. It seeks to amend an existing regulation law enacted in 1978. Two networks of Bangladeshi NGOs have complained that the proposed draft remains restrictive, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.
Robert Blake, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, also noted of “reports from some local NGOs that space for civil society is shrinking.” At the same time, he highlighted the continued vacancy of the top position at the Grameen Bank, the Bangladesh-based microfinance institution established by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. The bank has been without a permanent managing director since Yunus’ controversial resignation in 2010.
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