The NGO Secretariat of the government which is placed under the Ministry of Defence has issued a circular to all NGOs directing them to act within their mandate. The circular states “It has been revealed that certain Non Governmental Organisations conduct press conferences, workshops, trainings for journalists and press releases which is beyond their mandate. We reiterate that Non Governmental Organisations should prevent from such unauthorized activities with immediate effect.”
The National Peace Council is very concerned about this directive. According to our knowledge there is no law under which an NGO can be prosecuted for going beyond its mandate. Any action beyond an organisation’s mandate merely renders such action ultra vires and not valid in law unless the Memorandum of Association is amended which is a domestic procedure of the NGO. So NGOs wonder whether this directive is to intimidate them, create uncertainty, and silence dissent and exposure of the truth. If an NGO violates the criminal law or other statutory law it can be prosecuted under the existing laws.
As an organization we work within our mandate. It is important for the government to clarify its position without ambiguity as these types of circulars would bring misunderstandings and tensions between civil society and the government. This one violates the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association that is guaranteed under the Constitution and contravenes the several international covenants that Sri Lanka has signed. If Sri Lanka is to be respected as a democracy, the government needs to recognize that majority rule, or having a majority in Parliament, does not foreclose other opinions that exist in the society at large.
Those who govern a country need to hear the opinions of the people and not have it filtered for them by those who are around them and have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. This requires a free flow of information, which is what NGOs provide as they work directly with the people at all levels of society and gather information which they analyse and disseminate. Therefore we ask the government to withdraw this circular and take action under the existing laws where an NGO violates them.