RIGHTS-ETHIOPIA: Strangling Criticism

By Michael Chebsi — ADDIS ABABA, Jan 27 (IPS) – The Ethiopian parliament has voted into law a controversial bill which bars any civil society organisation receiving more than 10 percent of its funding from foreign sources from engaging in human rights issues.

The new law, passed on Jan. 6, affects the majority of the 4,677 registered Ethiopian NGOs. They are now prohibited from work touching in any way on the subject of human rights, governance, criminal justice issues and others.

Out of the 547 lawmakers in parliament, 79 opposition politicians raised their hands to veto the bill in vain. Opposition politicians are not the only ones fuming at the latest bill. Humanitarian groups are also strongly dismayed, considering it an attempt by the government to undermine the ailing political space.

“Those are the rights of Ethiopian citizens. Foreign groups cannot simply meddle in such affairs any more,” says Berhanu Adelo, head of the Prime Minister’s office. The government considers any other option a “neo-liberal rent-seeking philosophy” of trying to cripple and replace the government’s role in a society.

Failure to comply could potentially send an offender to jail for over a decade. An individual found to be managing a charity or society violating the new law would serve up to 15 years of imprisonment. Mere membership in a charity organisation violating the new rules – or even attending their meetings – is punishable by ten years behind bars.

The Ethiopian government claims the law is designed to ensure greater financial transparency by civil society groups but the law includes provisions that appear to go beyond ensuring transparency.

Keeping CSOs under close government observation will be a new body, the Charities and Societies Agency which will have sweeping powers to enforce a web of exhaustive reporting procedures.

Charities and societies organisations are required to maintain day-to-day records of financial transactions and furnish an annual statement of accounts to the Agency. Despite the requirement to submit an annual audit of accounts by a certified auditor, an internal auditor or an auditor designated by the Agency, an organisation can be subject to a random audit of accounts. Furthermore, CSOs are required to submit to the Agency an annual activity report outlining their major activities and other relevant information along with a statement of accounts.

Foreign groups will be permitted to operate in the country only if the government finds them essential, reads Addis Ra’ey, the ruling party’s monthly publication in its September 2008 issue. Under the law, the government can dismiss them at anytime and they too have no right to appeal. Groups based outside the country, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, are barred from doing human rights-related work in Ethiopia.

The right to appeal is severely limited and is not extended to foreign groups at all.

The move is considered an assault on CSOs by the administration of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. “In a poor country like Ethiopia, it is unrealistic to expect 90 percent of funds to come from local sources,” says Professor Beyene Petros, chairman of United Ethiopian Democratic Forces party. This is a clear attempt to bust the civil society, he told IPS.

“The law is a dedicated attempt by the Ethiopian government to avoid CSO involvement in the next election,” says Bernhard Meier zu Biesen, horn of Africa regional director of Welthungerhilfe, a German based humanitarian organization that funds its work from the EU and the German government.

Indeed on the eve of the last election in May 2005, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had made NGOs responsible for the steep loss of votes in Addis Ababa and some regional towns. Most consider the approval of a law that criminalises most NGO activities a move by the government to prevent identical weakness at the polls although the opposition this time is not as united as it was four years ago.

“Unfortunately the opposition in this country is very poor, disunited, weak, and strategically immature. It seems that till the next election we will have virtually no substantial alternative to the present party monopoly,” Meier told IPS.

Ethiopia is one of the highest foreign aid recipients in the world, receiving over 1.6 billion dollars in 2006. Most organisations rely on foreign sources of funding. For instance, Pastoralist Forum Ethiopia, which coordinates the work of 66 organisations to research and advocate the rights of livestock herders, gets 97 per cent of its funding from foreign sources. The Ethiopian Women Civil Societies’ Coalition of 43 organisations also earns almost all of its funding from non-Ethiopian donors.

It is feared that the new law will result in the closing down of many such vocal and prominent organisations

Meier however advises all CSO-bodies to strengthen activities in cross cutting issues like gender, participation and transparency. “By some cleverness and skilful, artful approach mature CSOs can do a lot.”

(END/2009)

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