”’The Sri Lankan civil society movement,has a rich and extensive history”

Phillip Dissanayake

The citizens of Sri Lanka have mixed views about Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) because of the way they are portrayed by the government, politicians, and media.

In broader terms, NGOs can be defined as independent organizations that are not directly affiliated with the government. They run without the aim of generating profits, and operate in the fields of humanitarian and social work. However, there is a specific political definition for the term NGOs. Accordingly, NGOs are a part of the civil society. NGOs are a category of civil society organizations that operate in a professional domain. They are responsible for obtaining funding, hiring professionals, and managing projects.

The Sri Lankan civil society movement, similar to the global civil society movement, has a rich and extensive history. According to Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda, the oldest civil society movement in Sri Lanka is the teetotalism movement of 1912-1915.

Despite the lack of an official count of civil society organizations in Sri Lanka, it is estimated that nearly 44,000 organizations are currently registered with the government.

Had civil society organizations not been active in Sri Lanka, the understanding of human rights, including fundamental rights, criminal and civil laws, women and children’s rights, minority community rights, farmer and fisher community rights, environmental rights, and free and fair elections would not be as widespread as they are today.

These civil organizations became popular among people in the past because their activists worked hard with great dedication and enthusiasm amidst many challenges. However, over time, certain groups, including self-proclaimed patriotic governments and some people in the opposition, made efforts to suppress civil society organizations in Sri Lanka. They wanted to weaken their efforts to promote minority rights, peace and harmony, human rights, freedom of the press, and democratic values by isolating them from society and discrediting them in the eyes of the people.

Allegations made against NGOs

NGOs in Sri Lanka have been accused of posing a threat to the country’s unitary state, territorial integrity, and national security. They are also accused of receiving foreign funds by providing false information against the state, engaging in corruption, and having transparency issues. Therefore, the government and other parties have indicated the need to regulate NGOs. However, the NGOs who operate in a professional domain are not opposed to that. There is a significant history of governments trying to control NGOs in Sri Lanka. Various proposals regarding the control of non-governmental organization activities have been presented in the following parliamentary committee reports.

  1. 30th August 2005 – Parliamentary Special Committee (Nandana Gunathilake/Vijitha Herath Report)
  2. 19th February 2020 – Sectorial Oversight Committee on National Security – Malith Jayathilake Report
  3. On 20th February 2018, the Cabinet approved the proposal submitted by former Minister Mano Ganesan to amend the Voluntary Social Service Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act.

The former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, discussed with civil society representatives on 27th March 2018, and an agreement was reached to withdraw the cabinet paper and seek the opinions of the civil society representatives for amending the Act. A committee consisting of civil society representatives was subsequently appointed for this purpose.

The committee gathered opinions from 233 representatives of civil organizations from all nine provinces between May 2018 and June 2019 to amend the Act. Accordingly, a civil society alternative proposal based on the following policies and principles was handed over to the minister in charge in August 2019.

  • Respect to the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly
  • Non-discrimination and equal treatment to NGOs
  • Cessation of unnecessary government intervention and allowing free and independent functioning of organizations while respecting their values and autonomy
  • Respect the right to network, communicate, and collaborate with other organizations or groups based on needs.
  • Freedom to utilize legally obtained funds for the goals and plans of the organization
  • Any laws or regulations that aim to regulate civil society organizations should be developed in keeping with international standards and principles and with due consideration of the perspectives of the organizations they impact.
  • Creation of a favorable environment in the country for the active and effective operation of civil society organizations.

Following the change of government in November 2019, the National Secretariat for NGOs was transferred from the Ministry of National Integration, Official Languages, Social Progress, and Hindu Religious Affairs to the Ministry of Defense.

Afterward, upon a request from the new director of the NGOs Secretariat to provide proposals for the amendment of the Voluntary Social Service Organizations Act, the aforementioned proposals were again forwarded by the civil society organizations.

On 09th August 2021, a new bill was introduced to replace the Voluntary Social Service Organizations Amendment Act, and the cabinet paper presented by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as the Minister of Defense received cabinet approval.

In 2021, the National Secretariat for NGOs was transferred from the Ministry of Defense to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then to the Ministry of Public Securty.

The civil society proposals presented in 2019 were further developed through a series of discussions held with 677 organizations representing all nine provinces between September 2021 and August 2022. Through that, a report was prepared, including administrative and operational issues faced by regional organizations and the solutions for them.

The discussions between the civil society representatives and the Minister of Public Security, Tiran Alles, were initiated in September 2022.

During the second meeting, civil society organizations expressed their strong opposition to a draft document related to the Voluntary Organizations Act prepared by the government. In the third discussion held with the minister in November 2022, the minister expressed his willingness to collaborate with civil society representatives in preparing a new bill. On 31st January 2023, the National Coalition of Civil Society Organizations and NGOs submitted policy and principle proposals for the new Act.

Reportedly, that the government is now drafting a new bill, taking into account the suggestions made by civil society organizations as well. It is reported that the new Act aims to unify the NGOs that are currently registered under various government structures, bringing them under one comprehensive law. The Voluntary Social Service Organizations hold the opinion that the laws to be enacted should protect the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, as well as other civil and political rights protected by international conventions.

(Phillip Dissanayake is the Executive Director of ‘Right to Life’ Human Rights Center, a NGO which is one of the co-conveners of the Coalition of Civil Society Organizations and NGOs)


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