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 country.

?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.

The 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.

?Since 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.

Those 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.

?On 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.