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November 15, 2013

Kenyan Civil Society Under Threat

By Sarah Bessell
Human Rights Defenders Program

Kenya looks set to become the latest country to pass damaging foreign funding laws targeting civil society. This is a clear attempt to control organizations that have played an important role in holding the government accountable to international standards on human rights and good governance.

Kenya stands to join other countries that have enacted similar legislation, including Ethiopia, Egypt, Russia, Algeria, Bangladesh, Jordan, Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Short of banning civil society outright, these governments seek to silence critics through administrative repression.

The Miscellaneous Amendment Bill of 2013, announced without notice or debate, would amend the Public Benefit Act of 2013 and cap the amount of foreign funds CSOs can receive at 15% of their budget. In order to receive foreign funding above the 15% limit, CSOs would have to demonstrate legitimate and compelling reasons for the increase. If passed by the National Assembly, this legislation would severely impact and curtail Kenyan civil society organizations, many of whom are dependent on foreign funding.

Civil society organizations have issued an Open Letter to the government, calling for a re-draft of the Bill, and plan to launch a petition drive asking President Uhuru Kenyatta not to approve it. “We are totally opposed to such a bill and its part of the schemes by the government to muzzle all sectors in the country,” said National Association of Human Rights Activists president Ken Wafula. “Freedom of expression and institutions is [sic] under threat from this Parliament.”

U.N. Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai identified access to financial resources as essential to the right to freedom of association in his second thematic report to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Passage of this legislation would place Kenya in direct violation of its international obligations under Article 13 of the Defender’s Declaration, Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In September, President Obama hosted a High Level Event on Supporting Civil Society on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly, where he said, “I'm challenging all of us to use the next 12 months to make progress…we need to do more to stand against restrictions on civil society and better coordinate our diplomacy when the government tries to stifle civil society.” The White House and the Department of State have yet to comment on Kenya’s proposed legislation. If the U.S. is serious about protecting civil society and freedom of association, it must condemn in the strongest possible terms Kenya’s proposed funding restrictions.