Ethiopia: Draft Law Threatens Civil Society

For Immediate Release

Ethiopia: Draft Law Threatens Civil Society

Donor Governments Should Condemn Assault on Rights

NEW YORK - Ethiopia's parliament should reject a draft law that would criminalize
human rights activity and seriously undermine civil society groups,
Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch called on donor governments to speak out publicly
against the bill, which is expected to be introduced in parliament this
month.

The Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO law) would provide the
government a potent tool to intimidate and weaken Ethiopia's long
beleaguered civil society. Although the bill has been revised twice
since May 2008, the current version retains many of the most alarming
provisions.   

"The only reason to have such a repressive law is if it
would be used to strangle Ethiopia's few remaining independent voices,"
said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Donor
governments should make clear to Ethiopia that enacting this law will
threaten future funding."  
 

The CSO law would bar both foreign and Ethiopian
organizations that receive more than 10 percent of their funding from
abroad from undertaking any activities in human rights, gender
equality, children's rights, disabled persons' rights, conflict
resolution, and strengthening judicial practices and law enforcement,
among related activities. The law would also exclude groups that are
largely funded by Ethiopians living in the diaspora from working on
these issues. The law would carry severe criminal penalties for
violations, including three to five years of imprisonment for minor
administrative violations.   

The draft law would establish a Charities and Societies
Agency that would have enormous discretion to "regulate" civil society
organizations, with few procedural safeguards and virtually no right of
appeal of most of its decisions. Agency officials could arbitrarily
refuse to register an organization, order organization staff or
leadership suspended, and make onerous demands for documents and other
information.  
 

The proposed law violates Ethiopia's obligations under its
own constitution, regional African treaties, and the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Ethiopian officials claim that
the law is intended to create "improved mechanisms to monitor
nongovernmental organizations," but the bill presents a far more
intrusive regulatory framework than legislation adopted by many other
countries, including Malawi, Tanzania, and South Africa.  
 

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"Ethiopia claims the civil society law would promote
accountability, but other countries achieve this without banning human
rights activity," said Gagnon. "As the seat of the African Union,
Ethiopia should be at the forefront of efforts to promote good
governance instead of a leader in civil society oppression."  
 

Independent or critical voices, including those of
political opposition, already face increasing pressure in Ethiopia. The
country's human rights situation has markedly deteriorated since the
disputed 2005 elections,
when security forces killed scores of demonstrators during street
protests and arbitrarily arrested tens of thousands of others.   

The government detained
dozens of human rights defenders, opposition leaders, and journalists
in November 2005 and tried them on treason charges. More than 100 of
these people, including 25 journalists and publishers, were finally
acquitted in April 2007, and 38 people, mostly opposition leaders, were
pardoned in July 2007 after pleading guilty. Two civil society
activists who were arrested in the same round-up and refused to plead
guilty were finally released in March 2008 after spending more than two
years in prison and being convicted on baseless charges of incitement.   

Ethiopia's bilateral donors provide more than US$1 billion
in aid each year to what is one of the world's poorest countries and an
important ally in regional counterterrorism efforts. Key governments,
including the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, have
quietly pressed the Ethiopian government to amend the most repressive
provisions of the proposed law, to little apparent effect.  
 

Donor governments have refused to condemn serious human
rights abuses in Ethiopia publicly, claiming that quiet pressure
achieves more impact. Over the past two years, though, Ethiopian
security forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity,
both within Ethiopia and in neighboring Somalia, without being called to account for their actions.
  

"Quiet
diplomacy has failed to convince the Ethiopian government to address
serious abuses," said Gagnon. "Donors need to say loud and clear that
continued repression will have financial consequences." 

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