January 06, 2009

Ethiopian Law Curbs Promotion of Rights, Critics Say (Bloomberg)

Ethiopian Law Curbs Promotion of Rights, Critics Say (Update1)

By Jason McLure

Jan. 6 (Bloomberg) -- Ethiopia’s parliament ratified a law that critics say will prevent groups from promoting human rights and democracy in the Horn of Africa country, strengthening the government’s hand to crack down on dissent.

The so-called “Proclamation for the Registration and Regulation of Charities and Societies” was passed today by a vote of 327 to 79 in Ethiopia’s parliament. The 547-member legislative body is dominated by members of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, which has 481 seats.

Zenawi’s party, which has ruled Ethiopia since 1991, backed the law even after Western donors, domestic civil society organizations and members of Ethiopian opposition parties objected. They argue the legislation aims to quash dissent.

“This law goes far beyond any normal effort to regulate civil society,” said Leslie Lefkow, a researcher in the Africa division of New York-based Human Rights Watch. “It’s really an instrument of repression.”

Under the new plan, any charity that promotes ethnic gender and religious equality; human rights; democracy; or conflict resolution and receives more than 10 percent of its funding from overseas, will be banned. Organizations that advocate rights for children and the disabled or promote “the efficiency of the justice and law enforcement services” will also be outlawed unless they source more than 90 percent of their revenue inside Ethiopia.

Blanket Ban

Since nearly all non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, that work in these areas rely on foreign funding, the law is tantamount to a blanket ban, political activists said.

“Ninety-five percent of these organizations will not survive under this legislation,” said Lidetu Ayalew, an opposition member of parliament, during a debate on the law on Dec. 24.

Ethiopia’s government says the new law is needed to regulate the country’s more than 3,800 NGOs. It also argues that it’s the role of the state, rather than foreign-backed organizations, to protect human and democratic rights.

“We need social development,” said Berhanu Adelu, chief of Zenawi’s Cabinet, in a forum on the new law on Dec. 24. “We invite NGOs to do this work, but it is not their role to protect the rights of citizens. That is the role of government. It’s an internal issue.”

The government also disputes claims that the law is intended to silence critics or that groups will close as a result.

‘Clearly Specified Duty’

“No NGOs will be closed as a result of this,” Justice Minister Berhanu Hailu said in an interview on the sidelines of the forum on Dec. 24. “They just have to raise funds locally. This is not a closing of political space. We are not undermining civil society in Ethiopia, but their duty area is clearly specified.”

The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa said the law “appears to restrict civil society activities and international partners’ ability to support Ethiopia’s own development efforts.”

“We are concerned that this law may restrict U.S. government assistance to Ethiopia, particularly on promoting democracy and good governance, civic and human rights, conflict resolution and advocacy for society’s most vulnerable groups,” the embassy said in an statement read to Bloomberg.

Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, said that while the government had provided assurances that the law was intended to regularize non- governmental activity, it appeared to have emerged out of state fears about political control.

‘Increased Repression’

Those fears “manifested as increased repression of civil society activity after the contested 2005 elections and continue to severely limit space for civil society as Ethiopia heads toward elections in 2010,” Amnesty said in an e-mail today.

Government opponents accused the state of rigging the May 2005 elections, sparking protests in Addis Ababa and other cities. A judicial inquiry after the election concluded that government security forces had killed 193 opposition supporters in the unrest.

In October and November of 2008, the government arrested 15 members of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, an opposition party, on suspicion of belonging to a separatist group. Last month, Birtukan Mideksa, the country’s leading opposition politician, was arrested and jailed for life after a dispute with the government over a pardon agreement that had freed her in 2007.

Rights Monitor

Among the NGOs likely to be banned is the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, or EHRCO, a non-profit organization that has issued more than 140 reports detailing summary executions, disappearances and unlawful detentions of Ethiopians over the past 17 years.

More than a dozen of the group’s staff and members were arrested in the wake of Ethiopia’s disputed 2005 elections, during which EHRCO ran voter education programs, Yoseph Mulugeta, the group’s secretary-general, said in an interview

About 99 percent of the 1,500-member group’s 4 million birr ($400,000) annual budget comes from foreign sources, including the U.S. based National Endowment for Democracy, Canada’s overseas aid agency, and the embassies of European governments.

As a result of the law, many of the group’s 60 investigators and administrators across the country have been notified they’re likely to lose their jobs.

“Who watches when the government violates human rights?” Mulugeta said. “In many countries the government is the biggest violator of human rights. There needs to be independent watchers.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason McLure in Addis Ababa via Johannesburg at pmrichardson@bloomberg.net.
Last Updated: January 6, 2009 10:34 EST

No comments: