ICNL has just published a study that focuses on the ways in which the closing of space for civil society—especially restrictions on the registration, financing, and operations of civil society organizations (CSOs)—is affecting HIV response in the East African countries of Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya.
The UN General Assembly’s “Political Declaration on HIV and AIDS: On the Fast Track to Accelerating the Fight against HIV and to Ending the AIDS Epidemic by 2030” calls on all member states to increase the capacity of civil society so that it can help advance the response to HIV. Likewise, in signing on to the UN SDGs in 2015, UN member states pledged to promote accountability; challenge inequality, stigma, and marginalization; and ensure that “no one is left behind” in global development, including access to health services. However, as this study shows, in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, three countries with a high rate of HIV/AIDS, CSOs face restrictive laws, policies, and practices that hinder their ability to implement urgently needed programs.
In all three countries, the criminalization of key populations has been used to justify curtailment of the work of CSOs focused on HIV. CSOs that could energetically combat HIV among hard-to-find key populations are instead tied down by bureaucratic red tape, including the filing and re-filing of paperwork, negotiations with bank and government officials, and even court cases challenging their right to exist. While organizations confront these obstacles, all three countries continue to have difficulty identifying and reaching key populations with effective programs that address their health and HIV-related needs.
This study also finds that laws related to CSO registration and operations fail to meet those countries’ obligations under regional and international human rights treaties. Laws in the three countries unduly restrict CSOs’ registration, financing, and operations while granting excessive discretion to regulatory bodies. The burdensome requirements and unpredictable nature of regulatory enforcement affects the degree to which organizations can plan and realize sustainable programs, build their internal capacity, and scale up to meet the needs of beneficiaries.
To ensure that Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya use all available resources to address HIV, the restrictive laws, policies, and practices identified in this study should be reviewed and repealed or amended so that CSOs have space to operate freely. Achieving this goal will require the joint efforts of a range of stakeholders, including national governments, AIDS coordinating authorities, national human rights institutions, CSOs, regional and global human rights mechanisms, and donors and technical partners.