Saturday, January 10, 2009
On Tuesday, January 6th, the Ethiopian Parliament voted 327 to 79 to pass the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO law) that limits foreign funding for NGOs to less than 10% and bans lobby groups from campaigns against civil liberties.
The United States has expressed concern that the CSO law appears to restrict civil society activities and international partners' ability to support Ethiopia's own development efforts. The U.S. State Department said in a statement: "We recognize the importance of effective oversight of civil society organizations to ensure accountability, efficiency, transparency, and a clear set of operating procedures for NGOs. However, we are concerned 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 -- areas the Ethiopian government has defined as critical for development."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) started a campaign in October last year, appealing to foreign governments with relations with the Ethiopian government to threaten aid cuts as a way of intimidating the government to drop the law. According to HRW, the Ethiopian government claims that the CSO law is mainly intended to ensure greater openness and financial probity on the part of NGOs. However, HRW asserts that the law places such severe restrictions on all human rights and governance-related work as to make most such work impossible, thus violating fundamental rights to freedom of association and expression provided for in the Ethiopian constitution and international human rights law. By considering any civil society group that receives more than 10% of its funding from abroad – even from Ethiopian citizens living outside of the country – to be “foreign,” these groups are forbidden from doing any work that touches on human rights, governance, or a variety of other issues. Because Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries, with few opportunities for domestic fundraising, HRW claims these constraints are even more damaging than they would be elsewhere. Under the law, groups based outside the country, such as HRW and Amnesty International, are barred from doing human rights-related work in Ethiopia.
On December 25th, the Ethiopian parliamentary committee in charge of legal affairs held a public hearing for the new law, at which the civil society appealed to the government to agree to repeal the offending sections of the proposed law. Ethiopian Justice Minister Berhan Hailu told the campaigners against the law that the 10% agreed for the civil society was already "too poisonous" but the government had agreed to live with it and manage the consequences.
The violation of this law will carry some criminal charges and prison terms, according to the civil society organizations familiar with the law.