Efforts to promote democracy, good governance and human
rights in Ethiopia may be jeopardized by a new law enacted this week by
Ethiopia’s parliament. US State Department
deputy spokesman Robert Wood says the so-called Charities and Societies
Proclamation (NGO law) will restrict US government aid, and Human Rights Watch
calls the act a direct rebuke to non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and to
countries that assist Ethiopia. The
crackdown on domestic and foreign civil society and human rights groups comes
one week after Addis Ababa reversed a political pardon and rearrested one of Ethiopia’s
leading opposition politicians, Birtukan Midekssa of the Unity for Justice and Democracy
party. Human Rights Watch senior Africa researcher
Chris Albin-Lackey saysr the
legislation outlaws and criminalizes most human rights activities in the
new law will quite literally make most kinds of human rights work in Ethiopia
illegal. The law labels most Ethiopian
NGO’s as foreign because any group that accepts money from sources outside
Ethiopia, more than ten percent of their funding, is considered foreign. And foreign groups, both Ethiopian groups,
that are dependent on any kind of foreign funding, and foreign groups are not
now allowed to do any kind of work that touches in any way on the subject of
human rights, governance, criminal justice issues, and a whole range of other
issues. And failure to comply with those
provisions of the law is a crime,” he pointed out.
Ethiopian government claims that the NGO law is designed to ensure greater
financial transparency by civil society groups. But in fact, say critics, it makes
their work and the ability of human rights groups to chronicle and speak out
against injustices all but impossible.
Human Rights Watch’s Albin-Lackey says the legislation is part of a
broader trend toward political repression and a denial of fundamental rights to
freedom of association and expression, which have been increasingly challenged
since the widely disputed elections of 2005.
Ethiopia’s controversial elections in 2005, which were far and away the most
open and hotly contested in Ethiopia’s history as a country, there’s been a
very clear trend on the part of the government towards ratcheting up the levels
of political repression in the country, trying to close off space for
meaningful political opposition and also for independent civil society that
might be critical of government policies and actions,” he said.
who violate the human rights group law could face up to 15 years in jail. The legislation passed Ethiopia’s parliament
on Tuesday, and its implementation follows by a matter of weeks the arrest of
two prominent opposition politicians.
Chris Albin-Lackey notes that timing of its introduction sends the
signal that authorities will not tolerate independent criticism.
the one hand, we see this law being passed, which is a direct attack on
Ethiopian civil society, and on the other hand, we see actions like the arrests
of Birtukan Midekssa. She was originally
convicted in the aftermath of the elections for her role in sponsoring protests
against the election results and pardoned.
And her pardon has now been revoked on quite a flimsy pretext. And she potentially faces a life term in
prison. At the same time, another
prominent opposition politician (Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement secretary
general Bekele Jirata) was arrested in November, charged with plotting acts of
terrorism. And the government appears to
have no evidence in the case. They’ve
not charged him with an offense, but he is also sitting in prison. When you add all of these things together and
look at similar actions that have happened over the course of the past couple
of years, it really does come together to paint quite a grim and alarming
picture,” he said.
While the government of
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi permits very little dissent, the latest constraints
on rights groups and civil society organizations will particularly affect the
country’s paramount rights body, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO),
which receives most of its funding from international donors, like the National
Endowment for Democracy, which generally carries out the policy goals of the US
government in countries overseas. Human
Rights Watch indicates that under the new NGO law, EHRCO might either have to forsake
its work or give up its outside funding lifeline.