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Ethiopian Parliament Approves Law Criminalizing Many NGO Activities

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Ethiopia's parliament has overwhelmingly approved a law that will sharply restrict the activities of most civil society groups.  The law has been the target of scathing criticism from opposition parties, rights groups and many foreign governments, including the United States.  

The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Party used its massive parliamentary majority to push through a law that gives the government broad powers over foreign funded non-governmental organizations.

The so-called Charities and Societies Proclamation prohibits any group receiving at least 10 percent of its funds from abroad from promoting democratic or human rights, the rights of children, or equality of gender or religion.  Violators could face stiff fines and sentences of up to 15 years in prison.

Defending the bill in parliament, EPRDF whip Hailemariam Desalegn argued that any group advocating democracy and human rights should be run by Ethiopians, who should have control over the expenditure of funds.

Minister for cabinet affairs Berhanu Adelo, a top adviser to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, said Ethiopia needs NGOs to help with social development. But he said it is not the job of NGOs to protect the rights of citizens. That, he said, is the government's job.

Critics say the law effectively gives Ethiopia's increasingly authoritarian government a large say in the affairs of as many as 3,000 charities and civil society groups with a combined budget of $1.5 billion a year, much of which goes to promote open society and multi-party democracy initiatives.

Opposition leaders were blistering in their criticism of the bill. Temesgen Zewde of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, whose party leader was imprisoned for life last week after a spat with the ruling party, called the bill part of a government effort to create a one-party state.

"This is really a domination agenda, a single party agenda, all the other stuff is simply window dressing. The agenda is to stifle these voluntary public movements that are known to assist the democratic process, the situation of human rights, and all other advocacies are vital and necessary," he said. "They just don't want to see this. The EPRDF cannot survive in that kind of environment."

Another opposition leader, Dr. Beyene Petros, says the new law will effectively silence those capable of participating in the democratization of Ethiopia.

"It is totally consciously designed to undermine and restrict the role of civil society, because the ruling party is determined to advance the cause of revolutionary democracy and part of the Communist order that is going to be implemented in this country for the coming 30-40 years without anybody looking or criticizing or having any idea about what is going on. So the idea is to undermine the role of civil society," he said.

The United States and other western governments have voiced deep concern about the effects of the new law. The Bush administration sent its top human rights and democracy official, assistant secretary of state David Kramer to Addis Ababa twice over the past six months to discuss the bill with top government officials.

A U.S. embassy spokesperson Tuesday said the Charities and Societies Proclamation appears to restrict civil society activities and the ability of international partners to support Ethiopia's own development efforts.

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