Impact of closing civic space on HIV in East Africa

Restrictions on registration, financing, and operations of civil society organizations go beyond reasonable limits recognized in human rights law and create a chilling climate for organizations working on HIV response in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. That’s the finding of a new report by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL). I was proud to be part of the international writing team for the report, with lawyers and advocates from all three countries and from UNAIDS.

“In Ethiopia, since the introduction of the government’s Proclamation on Charities and Societies in 2009, the civil society sector has shrunk by nearly half because of restrictions on its funding and operations. These restrictions have severely limited CSOs’ capacity to reach key populations4 and advocate on their behalf.

In Uganda, recent burdensome laws have criminalized key populations and constrained organizations that seek to work with them—for example, by posing obstacles to their registration, day-to-day operations, and convening of public meetings.

In Kenya, a thriving and vocal civil society sector has pushed back successfully against attempts to close its space, but the Non-Governmental Organizations Coordination Board (NGO Board) and other government agencies have deregistered and taken other punitive measures against hundreds of organizations in recent years.

In all three countries, the criminalization of key populations has been used to justify curtailment of the work of CSOs focused on HIV. CSOs in Ethiopia and Uganda that work with key populations describe difficulties opening bank accounts, holding public gatherings, and even posting signs over their front doors.

“As a result, 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 serious obstacles, all three countries continue to have difficulty identifying and reaching key populations with effective programs that address their health and HIV-related needs.”

A foreword by Soyata Maiga, chairperson of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, Dainius Puras, calls on states to ensure that civil society groups are supported to help fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals.

The full report is online here.

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