The top U.S. official for human rights and democracy issues has met Ethiopia's leaders to express concern about pending legislation that critics say would curtail political freedoms. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports Ethiopian officials flatly reject the criticisms, arguing that the rights of citizens are being protected.
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights David Kramer says he came to Ethiopia this week to ask Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to reconsider provisions in a draft law that would criminalize many activities of foreign non-governmental organizations. The bill is set for presentation to parliament in the coming days.
The so-called Charities and Societies Proclamation would give the government oversight authority over NGOs receiving at least 10 percent foreign funding, including money from Ethiopians living abroad. It prohibits these NGOs from promoting the advancement of human and democratic rights, gender equality or the rights of children and the disabled.
After what he described as a 'useful and productive' two-hour meeting with the prime minister, Assistant Secretary Kramer told reporters he had expressed U.S. concerns about a number of issues, including the conduct of recent local council elections and a newly-passed law limiting press freedom.
"I did convey to him concerns that we have and we have heard from others about some trends that would point to a closing of political space. When you look at the April election earlier this year, when you look at the media law that was passed. When you look at the draft CSO legislation, and we had a discussion about that," he said.
Kramer says he is worried about provisions in the draft legislation that could force the closure of several aid projects funded by the U.S. government. "My bureau for example funds programs that deal with issues of women's empowerment, with media, with conflict resolution, and based on my understanding of the latest version of the proclamation that I've seen so far, those programs could be adversely affected," he said.
Ethiopian officials have staunchly defended the draft law, saying it will not jeopardize the rights of Ethiopians. In a recent VOA interview, senior government adviser Bereket Simon dismissed criticisms that the proposal would constitute a blow to democracy. "This is simply a ridiculous assertion. Since we're promoting democracy, I don't think any genuinely democratic NGO shall be afraid of empowering our people. We are empowering our people. Nothing has been taken from the right of the people, and that's what concerns us most, and if these NGO critics are really interested in what is taking place in Ethiopia, in empowering the public, I think there should be no concern or fear," he said.
Assistant Secretary of State Kramer declined to speculate on what impact passage of the Charities Proclamation might have on the level of U.S. aid to Ethiopia. The Horn of Africa country is currently the third largest recipient of U.S. aid in Africa, after Egypt and Sudan. During fiscal year 2008, U.S. assistance to Ethiopia totaled nearly $800 million, most of it humanitarian food aid.
There are an estimated 3,000 NGOs currently operating in Ethiopia. Their combined budgets are believed to be more than $1 billion a year.