Human Rights Watch’s Analysis of Ethiopia’s Draft CSO Law – Human Rights Watch

September 13th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

September 11, 2008 – The Ethiopian government is preparing to introduce for passage a Charities and Societies Proclamation (draft law) to regulate all domestic and international civil society organizations (CSOs) carrying out activities in the country. (more…)

September 11, 2008 – The Ethiopian government is preparing to introduce for passage a Charities and Societies Proclamation (draft law) to regulate all domestic and international civil society organizations (CSOs) carrying out activities in the country.

The law is ostensibly a tool for enhancing the transparency and accountability of civil society organizations. But in fact, its provisions would create a complex web of arbitrary restrictions on the work civil society groups can engage in, onerous bureaucratic hurdles, draconian criminal penalties, and intrusive powers of surveillance.

In Human Rights Watch’s view, the intended and actual result of this law would be to make it nearly impossible for any civil society organization to carry out work the government does not approve of. It also contravenes fundamental human rights guaranteed by international law and by Ethiopia’s constitution. Most notably, the law would criminalize human rights-related work carried out by non-Ethiopian organizations while at the same time making it impossible for domestic human rights organizations to operate with any real degree of effectiveness or independence.

The draft bill originally put forward by the Ethiopian government in June was met with strong opposition from some Ethiopian civil society actors and some international non-governmental organizations. Even some of Ethiopia’s key bilateral partners, who are normally almost silent about the government’s dire human rights record, voiced strong objections. Formal introduction of the bill was delayed and Parliament went into recess in July. The legislature is now expected to reconvene in October.

In the interim, the Ethiopian government has amended some provisions of the original text of the draft bill. The new text is less restrictive in some respects. The current text does not bar foreign and foreign-funded CSOs from working on poverty alleviation or economic development issues; the original text did. The new draft also explicitly places religious organizations outside of its scope of application. The original draft gave the government nearly unfettered powers to order any CSO to change its name and even its objectives as an organization; those powers have been largely removed from the current draft. The current draft also omits a provision that gave the agency overseeing CSOs the right to attend, or to send a police officer to attend, any CSO meeting. Other onerous, but relatively minor, provisions from the original draft have also been eliminated or curtailed.(1)

But in other ways the current text is even more repressive than the original draft. Already-draconian criminal penalties have been ramped up rather than eliminated, in some cases allowing for sentences of up to 15 years in prison for civil society actors who fall afoul of the law’s byzantine provisions. And the range of areas of work that foreign and foreign-funded organizations are forbidden to work on has been expanded to include issues touching on gender issues, children’s rights, and the rights of disabled people.

The current version of the bill remains a blunt tool whose primary impact would be to destroy the already-limited ability of Ethiopian civil society actors to criticize or act independently of the government. It would also result in the de facto criminalization of any and all independent human rights work that seeks to document or challenge the Ethiopian government’s appalling human rights record.

The climate for independent civil society organizations in Ethiopia has long been inhospitable. This law would consolidate the trend narrowing political space by giving government the power to silence some of Ethiopia’s few remaining independent civil society voices. And the likely impact of this law is still more ominous when understood in a broader context. Ethiopia’s already-limited political space has already been narrowed through patterns of government repression, harassment, and human rights abuse since the controversy that followed the country’s 2005 elections.(2) Formal political opposition has already largely evaporated in the years since then; April’s elections for local-level kebele and wereda administrations saw the ruling party winning more than 99 percent of all seats after running unopposed in most constituencies. One of the country’s two remaining large opposition coalitions boycotted the polls altogether.

The draft law also has the potential to cause damage far beyond Ethiopia’s own borders. The African Union Charter explicitly recognizes a need to “build a partnership between governments and all segments of civil society.”(3) As the seat of the AU, Ethiopia should be setting standards in this regard, not setting out to criminalize the work of independent civil society actors. But the restrictions in the draft law are broad enough that they could be used to bar international organizations whose work touches on prohibited subjects such as human rights from carrying out any sort of activity in Ethiopia, even interacting with AU institutions. And the criminal offenses defined under the law are broad enough that international CSOs attempting to engage with AU institutions around human rights issues in Ethiopia itself could find their staff fined or imprisoned for disseminating information “in the interests of any unlawful charity” or “act[ing] as a member of an unlawful charity or society.”(4)

The following pages set forth what we consider to be some of the most troubling provisions of Ethiopia’s Draft Charities and Societies Proclamation.5 The Ethiopian government currently plans to introduce the law to parliament in October, when the ruling party’s overwhelming majority would be expected to ensure swift passage with little meaningful debate.

Notes:

(1) For example, the original text required CSOs to seek government permission before opening new branch offices and to seek renewed registration every year (now every three years).

(2) The 2005 polls were marked by an unusual display of political openness in some areas, mainly large, urban centers. The ruling party and its allies nonetheless won landslide victories across most of Ethiopia and in many cases repression and intimidation made opposition impossible. While opposition parties won unprecedented gains, they protested the results of the polls and a brutal government crackdown ensued following protests in Addis Ababa. Nearly 200 people were killed, hundreds wounded, and thousands arbitrarily detained including leading opposition politicians.

(3) Constitutive Act of the African Union, Preamble.

(4) Draft law, sections 107, 104.3. 5This updated analysis is based on the most recent draft Proclamation of June 2008. A previous analysis published by Human Rights Watch was based on the May 2008 version of the draft Proclamation.

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