Ethiopia: Government Prepares Assault on Civil Society – Human Rights Watch

July 1st, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Ethiopia’s government should immediately abandon plans to impose strict government controls and draconian criminal penalties on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today. The two groups called on donor governments, whose behind-the-scenes efforts to see the bill reformed appear to have failed, to speak out publicly against the de facto criminalization of most of the human rights, rule of law and peace-building work currently being carried out in Ethiopia. (more…)

Ethiopia’s government should immediately abandon plans to impose strict government controls and draconian criminal penalties on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today. The two groups called on donor governments, whose behind-the-scenes efforts to see the bill reformed appear to have failed, to speak out publicly against the de facto criminalization of most of the human rights, rule of law and peace-building work currently being carried out in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s federal government claims that its draft Charities and Societies Proclamation (draft law) is a benign attempt to promote financial transparency among NGOs and enhance their accountability to stakeholders. In fact, the law’s key provisions are blunt and heavy-handed mechanisms to control and monitor civil society groups while punishing those whose work displeases the government. It could also seriously restrict much of the development-related work currently being carried out by some of Ethiopia’s key international partners, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.

“Ethiopia’s government has already made meaningful public engagement in governance impossible in many areas by persecuting its critics and cracking down on freedom of expression and assembly,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The clear intention of this legislation is to consolidate that trend by taking the ‘non’ out of ‘nongovernmental’ and putting civil society under government control.”

The law would apply to every NGO operating in Ethiopia except religious organizations and those foreign NGOs that the government agrees to exempt. Many of the key provisions of the draft law would violate Ethiopia’s obligations under international human rights law and fundamental rights guaranteed in its own constitution, including the right to freedom of association and freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both produced separate detailed analyses of the draft law. Among its most damaging provisions are articles that would:

* Impose stiff criminal penalties for anyone participating in “unlawful” civil society activity. The draft law would accord government agencies nearly unfettered discretion in deciding whether to register individual NGOs, and then defines as “unlawful” any civil society group that is not registered. To lend teeth to this restriction, the draft law would impose fines and prison sentences of up to 15 years for a range of new offenses including participation in any meeting held by an “unlawful” organization. It would also make dissemination of any information “in the interests of an unlawful charity” punishable by imprisonment. If the law were in effect today, this last provision could potentially be used to imprison anyone in Ethiopia who disseminated this statement.

* Subject all civil society groups to intrusive government control and surveillance. The draft law would set up a Charities and Societies Agency (CSA) with extensive discretionary powers to refuse to accord legal recognition to NGOs, to disband NGOs that have already been legally recognized, and to interfere in the management and staffing of NGOs up to the point of altering their organizational missions. The CSA would also have broad powers to monitor all activities of every NGO covered under the law. No NGO could hold any meeting without notifying the CSA in writing at least one week in advance, and the CSA and other government agencies would then be empowered to send police officers to attend and report on those meetings.

* Prohibit all activities carried out by non-Ethiopian NGOs that relate to human rights and other identified fields. The draft law draws an important distinction between “foreign” and “Ethiopian” NGOs. “Foreign” NGOs are expressly barred from doing any work related to human rights, governance, protection of the rights of women, children and people with disabilities, conflict resolution and a range of other issues. This would make expressly illegal any attempt by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or any other international human rights organization to engage in human rights activities in Ethiopia unless the government would choose to exempt them from the law.

* Strip Ethiopian NGOs that work on human rights issues of access to foreign funding. The draft law would effectively close down the few independent domestic NGOs that continue to work on human rights- and governance-related issues by stripping them of access to foreign funding. The draft law defines as “foreign” any Ethiopian NGO that receives more than 10 percent of its funding from foreign sources or has any members who are foreign nationals, and then bars “foreign” NGOs from working on human rights and governance issues. This would hit hard, given the lack of obvious fundraising and development opportunities inside Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world.

These and other similar provisions in the draft law would have a devastating impact if implemented. But the likely impact is still more ominous when understood in its broader context.

Should this law be passed, Ethiopia’s already-limited political space would be further narrowed. Over the years, the government of Ethiopia has demonstrated a pattern of repression, harassment of political opponents and human rights defenders critical of the government, and pervasive human rights violations. These trends have accelerated since the country’s controversial 2005 elections. Disputes about the results of those elections led to street protests that were brutally suppressed and then followed by the arrest of opposition politicians and leading activists on charges of treason.

Official tolerance of political dissent, already thin, has waned markedly in the years since then. Formal political opposition has largely evaporated in most of Ethiopia. April’s kebele and wereda elections saw the ruling party running unopposed in most constituencies and winning more than 99 percent of all seats.

“This law is not just an assault on independent civil society organizations,” said Michelle Kagari, deputy Africa director at Amnesty International. “It’s part of a broader effort to silence the few independent voices that have managed to make their criticisms of the government heard in an increasingly repressive climate.”

Ethiopia is one of the world’s most aid-dependent countries. Ethiopia’s key bilateral donors, however, have largely maintained a public silence in the face of the government’s worsening human rights record. For example, the United States and Britain, which collectively provide Ethiopia with more than $600 million in foreign assistance each year, are the Ethiopian government’s most important donors. Both governments have consistently failed to speak out publicly against longstanding patterns of repression and human rights violations including war crimes committed by Ethiopian armed forces in Somalia.

Several donor governments, along with a range of international and domestic NGOs, have had intensive private discussions with Ethiopian officials in an attempt to convince the government to abandon the most repressive aspects of the draft law. These efforts, however, have failed to improve many of the most worrying provisions of the law according to the latest draft released in late June.

“Ethiopia’s bilateral partners have consistently failed to speak out publicly against severe patterns of government-sponsored human rights violations,” Gagnon said. “Their policy of silence has had the effect of helping to embolden the Ethiopian government to make further assaults on human rights, exemplified by the draft NGO law.”

  1. Desta
    | #1

    I been following some of Ethiopias so called opposition sites, most of them known for suffering from excess exaggeration in facts presentations and in their propaganda missions, what this web sites do not realize is that too much exaggeration and exterme form of propaganda is dangerious self defeating in the mission one attempt to propagandize against.
    So my advice for this web site is to keep it self in balance instead of lossing credebility among its readers, and destroying one self in self inflicted wound.
    successful propagandist must make sure he is sharp in conection in the subject matter and with the truth, and in the mean time use the facts with logical reasoning and explanation than total blown lie and misrepresenation. After all the information provided as an article form in this web site is not a primary source of info, thus one must make sure not to lose the sight of the readers and their state of mind.

  2. Medekesaa
    | #2


    Why should we oromos still be forced to learn and speak Amara minority language (Amharic) within ourown regions and territory ? ?

    If there ought to be meaningful democratic reform and authentic democracy in Ethiopia and last peace, then “Ethiopias national language should immediatelly be changed from Amara minority language to ethiopias Majority (Afaan oromoffiaa).

  3. fish
    | #3

    Dear Medekesaa Says: ii don’t think you are convoying the great oromo ppls idea.Even if you were serious about what you are talking you would first change your name to shaw that you are proud of what you are claiming to be. As usual ,it is that low level woyane propaganda your trying to spread. I guess it is not the focus of this time to talk about language differences while so many oromo children are mass murdered by the primitive woyanes and face with extreme woyane made drought.i urge you to grow up and write this garbage of yours on walta not here.

  4. Abdisa
    | #4

    I understand some of you might get confused with my name; I am an Ethiopian from Italian father and an Ethiopian mother.

    I grew up and completed my high school education in Dessie and later at Menilik II comprehensive high school in Addis Ababa, before I left for Italy to complete my higher education. I speak a somewhat good Amharic and these few years I went to Ethiopia twice in the hope of returning something back to the country which gave me a lot. I traveled for the millennium celebration and again this year before the drought become headline news in Italy.

    I am writing my eye witness account and relate it to the recent categorization of Ethiopia as a failed state, under ‘Failed States Index Scores 2008? by The Mission of The Fund for Peace group.

    I have interviewed many people and seen multiple places and based on my personal assessment, Ethiopia is a failed state only a single disaster away.

    It is futile to compare Ethiopia with Zimbabwe or Eretria and try to present it in a fair light, but the fact of the matter is we Ethiopians do not enjoy the homogeneity that is prevalent in those countries. President Mugabe’s party may collapse next month but Zimbabwe will be available for its citizens after the dust settles.

    Ethiopia is a unique country and if and when TPLF decides to call it a day and becomes an independent African state, Ethiopia, as we know it today, would struggle to exist. I do apologize for my conspiratorial claims but here are a few facts I have gathered in those two visits to the country.

    EPRDF or TPLF is a party which has been working to weaken the rest of the country through various policies. If you pick the education policy alone, one cannot fail to notice the rest of the country has never produced a viable Economic force for the last two decades due to their insistence of higher emphasis to local languages, as a result of which, only students from Tigray region can speak English to qualify for any type of scholarship or have an opportunity to work in foreign legions and they are the ones welding power in every region in the name of ‘federal officers assisting the regional government’.

    The local Universities are also designed to cripple the new generation by producing “PhDs and Masters” by quota system out of the thin air, in great disregard to the quality of a human work force, and it is a sad reality to see policy makers talking about meaningless statistics by comparing the number of PhDs before and after EPRDF. This coupled with contestant harassment of intellectuals, who are challenging these failed policies, into leaving the country is another way to the realization of a government force full of mediocre talents only guided by hate and greed.

    I met a number of people with Ph.D. working for the government offices which has nothing to do with their field of studies. This failure is not by lack of manpower or understanding. It looks like it is by a careful design to weaken the next generation.

    Before visiting Ethiopia, I always thought that, there got to be a misunderstanding somewhere and the government needed some logistical support to make things better. I myself with a company in Barri- Italy, volunteered for a water resource developing project in the central Amhara region. The drinking water, fetched from a mile away transported by the backs of women and small children, was a source of many bacterial contaminations, but it did not take us to know that no such efforts are needed anywhere unless we pass a rigorous test of bribes equal to Mafioso extortions. We left the country after being ransacked through endless bribery.

    The other main issue is the TPLF total disregard to the rule of law and contempt to the Parliament members and the people in general. A case in point is the recent border treaty with Sudan. If there was an independent jury in that country, the Premier would have been impeached for such conduct and the whole cabinet would have been dissolved. But unfortunately the same people are prosecutors, jury and executioners in that country with no check and balance whatsoever. Besides, there has been too much admiration to some of these politicians who have shown particular skill in lying, so much so that, they have now institutionalized the destruction of public ethics, elevating deceit to a statecraft or a talent required to lead that country.

    Tigray, which was once a land-locked state, now has extended its border to Sudan by taking some fertile land from Gondar, and according to some information, that is the contingency plan or the end goal if their days of glory comes to an end. It is believed to be a carefully crafted path to their next move after throwing flames to the rest of the country.

    In this whole mischievous game, the innocent Tigray people are victims of few high-powered TPLF cadres. The case in point is Seye Abraha, who has never failed in pointing out the problem with the TPLF. He recently spoke heroically on the unilateral border deal with the government of Sudan sighting shortsightedness on the part of the prime minister. Again, he was talking to group of journalists a few days ago, on the importance of working with the coalition of opposition parties to council and save the country from a planned destruction by TPLF. If he survives the next two years, Seye Abraha would be the only chance for the Tigray population to live with the rest of Ethiopians in dignity.

    I have followed very interesting interviews on VOA regarding the border deal with Sudan, but there was no reaction from the Diaspora Ethiopians.

    If it continues this on this path, the country would become another Yugoslavia. Currently the government of Ethiopia is in big trouble. Their dollar reserve is low, mainly because of unabated corruption and illegal export of wealth. The country is going down the path of abject poverty and the only people whom you see eating 3 times a day are those who have relatives in the west or those who are entitled to stealing from the public fund. They are currently trying to convert the draught into gaining some form of sympathy for themselves, but it did not work so far. There is no one in the world who has not been fooled by TPLF, at least twice. They have over used every card known in politics and now they have to hire a lobbyists abroad to defend themselves; which is a sign of desperation and inability to stand on their own.

    I am also aware of a group in Italy who are currently tracking the country’s wealth in foreign banks under the assumed names/numbers of these corrupt individuals and it won’t be long before we hear a full disclosure on this matter.

    It is only in Ethiopia you hear a theft of national gold reserve from a bank vault and it is treated as a normal ‘burglary’. If it was anywhere else in the world, you would have seen the whole cabinet dissolving through a vote of no-confidence. Not in Ethiopia.

    It is only the government in the world, whose official delegations are still defecting. After being in power for two decades, it cannot convince anyone to stay aboard and work toward a common ideal. Because, there is no common ideal. Only the TPLF agenda served at all the embassies and foreign legions are filled with ailing and mentally decapitated ambassadors who cannot engage the Ethiopians in Diaspora, or bring a change on foreign relations other than serving the TPLF dignitaries and their royal followers to enrich themselves.

    The regional elected officials, which are effectively hostages of TPLF cadres in those areas, have been crippled through blackmail and intimidation and do not have any choice but to turn a blind eye for organized robbery by TPLF cadres sitting in those regions as ‘federal officers’. This is what would be fueling the secession movements in every part of the country, in the coming years, which is, of course, seems a part of the end game for the EPRDF/TPLF.

    During my last visit I met this loan officer from Ethiopian National Bank and he told me his frustration with the whole system. According to this Ethiopian, the TPLF cadres and their subordinates owe millions of dollars in debt and there is no end to their demand for additional loans and his strict obligation to approve which comes to his desk through certain channels, regardless of their defaults. There is no concern of inflation/deflation and above all there is no public accounting office to explain which wealth belongs to the country and which belongs to the party. TPLF, I learned, ordered confiscations of all vehicles, including type writers from the offices of the City Hall in Addis Ababa, when they lost the election in 2005.

    This time, with the heroic engagement from such people like Seye, Berhanu, Negasso, Bertukan and the likes we have that rare chance in history to save that country from becoming a history. We should not fail these individuals or the people just by becoming spectators. There is too much at stake. It is not which party is ruling when, it is a matter of having a country for your children or not.

    I want to tell those of you who advocate peaceful negations with the current TPLF rulers: They lived by the sword and they would rather die by the sword than working for a peaceful means. Unless you force them through various ways, including intensive campaigns in the Senates and Congress of these donor nations and keep on exposing their sham rules, it is futile to expect anything Ethiopians from them.

    If you love your country like I do, let us march and support all campaigns and initiatives to remove these hateful and deceitful people from power. My father fought Mussolini and lived in Ethiopia until his death and there was nothing gratifying for him to have seen the defeat of Mussolini and fascism in his lifetime; and to me EPRDF/TPLF is no better than Mussolini and they deserve our unified efforts in exposing and removing their grip on Tigray and their planned destruction of Ethiopia as we know it today.

    Ethiopia is a failed state and accepting its failed status is the first thing on our part, which would give us a clear vision to engage the real enemy. It also help us to understand the capacity and goal of these mediocre over-appraised tyrants who have been in power for two decades through deception and sheer luck of having a very fragmented opposition. From now on, it should not matter who rules Ethiopia next, as long as there is an Ethiopia!

    - – - – - – - – - – -
    I have plans to visit some Italian-American congress members in New York area for this July 4th celebration and in the coming weeks and I will be passing my messages to all that I come in contact with. I want to show some of my materials to the U.S. Senators who are in the way of HR 2003 to bring them aboard. You can reach me at

  5. Honest
    | #5

    Good point Fish.

    I guess Medeksa is not the same any more. He used to repeat the same massage over and over again but now he is tired of his TPLF self.

    IMO,Amharic is not national language for over two decades now. Amharic is the working language and not national language of Ethiopia. In the 1970s getting an F in ‘Matric’ didn’t prevent any good student from getting into any of the colleges or universities in Ethiopia.

    Ethiopia was never colonized by any of the powers of those times and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa adopted the language of the colonizers which are english, french or potugues i think.

    In Ethiopia’s case, the Yejju kingdom which ruled over Ethiopia for 80 years did speak Amharic but it was Muslim and Oromo. The Tigre too as recent as Yohannes the Metema chose Amharic over Tigrigna. Besides over 70% of Ethiopians speak Amharic as first or second language accordint to statistics done in past 22 years. And Oromo is second widely spoken language in Ethiopia even though the Oromo ethnic group is the largest in the country which is not majority since at least more than half is needed to be majority.

    It is an uphill battle to get freedom. Nobody should think it is easy. Westerners don’t feel the pain we are suffering but we appreciate

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