News

New laws to regulate NGOs and social service orgs: Cabinet moves to draft new legislation

  • New regulations to the Act a long-standing decision
  • Defence Ministry unaware of new inclusions to the Act

By Yoshitha Perera

Last week, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the Minister of Defence, decided to advise the Legal Draftsman to draft a bill enabling the introduction of a new piece of legislation in place of the Voluntary Social Service Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act No. 31 of 1980.

The cabinet decision regarding the above move was published last week, and the Government is planning to commence the process of drafting the new Act soon.

According to the Cabinet’s decision, it has been found that the provisions of the existing Voluntary Social Service Organisations (Registration and Supervision) Act, which is the main legislation for the registration of voluntary organisations, does not cover the present requirements.

Voluntary social services are motivated to create social awareness and change within the relevant target communities, while also enhancing their social change strategies.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Department of Social Services Director Chandana Ranaweera Arachchi said that introducing certain new regulations to the Act was a long-standing decision and that currently, the Government has taken necessary steps to draft a new Act.

However, when The Sunday Morning contacted the Ministry of Defence, its officials were not aware of such content that would be included in the new Act.

During the previous Yahapalana Government’s tenure, the Cabinet also approved a proposal to include amendments to the Voluntary Social Service Act.

At that point, many activists and organisations, including the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), mentioned that the proposed amendments had contained adverse effects as well as far-reaching consequences on the activities and finances of civil society, adding that those amendments, if enacted, would have a discouraging effect on a variety of private entities in Sri Lanka.

Last year, the Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security also recommended that necessary steps be taken to establish a mechanism that would allow the regulation of all finances received by Sri Lanka from non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Releasing a report on 19 February 2020, the Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security recommended the creation of a system that included the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL), the Chief of National Intelligence, and the NGO Secretariat.

However, several attempts to contact the NGO Secretariat Director General in this regard to gain insights into the proposed new Act proved futile.

Sharing views with The Sunday Morning, CPA Executive Director Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu said that he was aware of the proposed new Act and stated that he did not think there would be any difference with the amendments introduced previously to the existing Act.

“We have to observe the new draft once it is published. However, the interventions by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID), and military intelligence officers would likely happen for the activities conducted by these organisations in the future,” he explained.

Under the previously proposed amendments, the Yahapalana Government had also recommended the implementation of banking services to NGOs under the financial control of organisations.

These proposed amendments contained several clauses, such as a bank is prevented from facilitating an NGO from opening or maintaining a bank account without a proof of registration under the Act, if the NGO maintains a bank account in contravention of the provisions, such an organisation shall commit an offence under this Act, etc.

However, at that time, the CPA noted that the proposed legislation introduces a number of new provisions imposing restrictions on the financial autonomy of NGOs.

“These provisions undoubtedly impose additional administrative and financial burdens on these organisations, which will hamper their ability to carry out their intended goals and missions,” CPA’s observations to the previous proposed amendments noted. It also mentioned that the Financial Transactions Reporting Act No. 6 of 2006 contains similar provisions requiring institutions to disclose financial transactions to the Financial Intelligence Unit.

The observations to the previously proposed amendments further noted that NGOs in Sri Lanka fall under the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act No.12 of 2016, which means NGOs can be required to provide information regarding their activities and finances.

However, according to a recent report shared by Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), the tenure of the RTI Commission is set to expire in September this year. Accordingly, on 11 August, the TISL called for the appointment of new commissioners in line with procedures set out in the RTI Act.

Explaining the importance of establishing a separate new Act and unit to handle NGOs and other social services organisations, Cabinet Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told The Sunday Morning that nowhere in the world would NGOs come and spend their funds for causes without prior registration.

“It was very prevalent during the war time because most of the NGOs came on the basis of protecting certain communities, but they assisted the terrorist groups. They provided shelter, camps, and various other things for terrorist groups. Therefore, the implementation of a certain unit to monitor them (NGOs) in the future is necessary,” he said.

Rambukwella further explained that as long as NGOs are genuine and want to assist the needy, it would be totally acceptable. However, he said that if these organisations create an adverse impact that could harm national security, then the country would have to be extremely cautious about it.