06/01/2009 17:33 - (SA)
Addis Ababa - Ethiopia's parliament on Tuesday adopted a controversial bill imposing heavy restrictions on foreign-funded humanitarian groups operating in the war- and famine-ravaged country.
Under the new law, any group that draws more than 10% of its funding from abroad will be classified as foreign, and thus banned from working on issues related to ethnicity, gender, children's rights and conflict resolution.
Almost all senior opposition members abstained during the parliament vote, which passed the law by 327 votes to 79, according to an AFP reporter who attended the session.
"As far as we're concerned, it's an attempt by the ruling party to banish all those it sees as a threat to its tight grip on power," opposition MP Temesgen Zewdie told lawmakers before the vote.
Another MP voiced similar concerns.
"It's a sad day when such a draconian law is passed. They (the government) don't want voluntary public organisations to play a role, the agenda is to stifle processes that are known to assist the public," opposition party leader Beyene Petros told reporters.
The new legislation also provides for the creation of a state-controlled agency that supervises the work of foreign aid organisations.
But government officials insisted that the law was not devised to hamper the activities of NGOs but to safeguard the rights and interests of citizens.
"Civil organisations will be able to function without hindrances. They won't face restrictions as long as they respect the country's laws," government whip Hailemariam Desalegn said.
Both the United States and Britain, key aid contributors to the Horn of Africa nation, have raised their concerns over the legislation, but Hailemariam voiced confidence that ties with the West would remain intact.
"We don't believe that the bill's passing will affect our relationship with key development partners. If so, we are willing to sit down and explain our position," he said.
Ethiopia, a poverty-stricken nation of 77 million inhabitants in east Africa, is among the world's top aid recipients.