The Rwandan Senate recently passed new laws governing national and international civil society organizations (“CSOs”). The bills have been forwarded to the Chamber of Deputies for submission to President Kagame, and Presidential approval is expected shortly.
The approval of the bills by both Houses of Parliament has been achieved after a lengthy process of consultation. Participating throughout were numerous Rwandan and international CSOs, local and international experts who provided support during the drafting process and in Parliament, as well as relevant government ministries. With USAID funding, ICNL has been involved as a chief technical advisor from almost the beginning of the process, over three years ago, working with both civil society and the government.
From the start, it has been clear that CSOs and the government sought to produce sound reforms, encouraging the means for civil society to provide leadership in the social and economic development of Rwanda. Up to the final vote of the Senate, changes were made, even at the insistence of Senators, to strengthen the provision of CSO autonomy and right of civil society to engage in public policy deliberations.
The final versions of the bills enacted by the Senate have not yet been released, but the National Non-Governmental Organizations Act considered by the Senate included a number of noteworthy provisions, including:
- Reasonable registration provisions that make it possible for organizations to obtain legal identity. The power of the registrar to deny registration is restricted, with deadlines for the registrar’s action on applications, and with automatic right of appeal from adverse decisions. Existing registered organizations need not re-register.
- Specific authority for CSOs to engage in business operations, if profits are used for the organization’s objectives.
- Sound CSO governance provisions to strengthen CSO internal operations and legitimacy.
- Mediation processes established for resolving CSO internal conflicts.
- Affirmative right and administrative vehicles established for CSOs to participate in policy and legislative development.
In addition, “Common Interest Organizations” (operating for the benefit of members) and ”Foundations” are not required to register in order to exist, but the bill appears to require registration of “Public Interest Organizations” (with the purpose of benefiting the public or a significant part of the public). Though the bill makes tax and other benefits available to these organizations, issues arise under international law when organizations serving the public interest are subject to mandatory registration.
The International Non-Governmental Organizations Act considered by the Senate contained many provisions similar to those contained in the “National” act. One change most beneficial to the sector in regulation of international CSOs is the extension of registration from a single year term to five-years. Other provisions had caused concern to the international community, including limits on expenditures for administrative expenses (to be clarified administratively) and taxation of non-Rwandan employees (clarified in the legislation considered by the Senate), may have been resolved satisfactorily for the international organizations and Government.
Like all legislation, neither law is perfect in the eyes of either Government or civil society. Moreover, the impact of the laws on civil society’s effective role in Rwanda remains dependant on sound implementation. However, both represent a turn from the recent trend in much of Africa to focus on restrictions on CSOs and their activities. Rwanda appears to have sought instead to take an important step in the direction of legislating to enable civil society to bring together citizens for a stronger voice and fuller participation in the civil life of their nation.
ICNL will review the final measures and provide commentary when they are made public.