International human rights groups have warned of new legislation being prepared by the government of Ethiopia that the groups say would constrain the activities of nongovernmental organizations operating in the country.  As Derek Kilner reports for VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi, the government maintains the new regulations would simply be meant to streamline the operations of NGOs.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say that the current draft of Ethiopia's proposed Charities and Societies Proclamation would drastically increase government monitoring of NGOs operating in the country and make it easier for the government to punish groups whose work it does not agree with.

The organizations say Western donor governments have been involved in unsuccessful back-channel negotiations with Ethiopian officials to soften the bill and they are now calling on those governments to condemn the proposed legislation.    

The Ethiopian government denies that the bill threatens the work of NGOs, maintaining that the legislation is merely an attempt to simplify current regulations and promote transparency.

Wahade Belay, spokesman for Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry, said he had not seen the accusations made by Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, but rejected the idea that the bill would restrict development work in the country.

"Whether it's international or domestic NGOs, it will facilitate a smooth operation for them," he said. "It comes with accountability, how they should raise funds, and then where should they apply if they are domestic, if they are international. This is a draft proclamation which is designed to make the operation of NGOs smooth. This is a law that you can find in any other country."

According to the international groups, Ethiopian organizations working on human rights and peace-building are likely to face the biggest challenges, with new penalties for engaging in "unlawful" activities, and restrictions on foreign funding.

But international development NGOs operating in the country would also face restrictions. In particular, international organizations would not be allowed to engage in democracy, governance, or peace-building work.

Human rights groups have criticized Ethiopia's government in recent years for cracking down on political opponents from opposition political parties and from civil society. The government has also been accused of widespread human rights abuses, particularly in its campaign against insurgent groups in the ethnically Somali region of the Ogaden.