- The government of Ethiopia has been urged to "immediately abandon plans to impose strict controls and draconian criminal penalties" on non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
In a joint statement, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on donor governments, whose behind-the-scenes efforts to sell the bill reformed appear to have failed, to speak out publicly against the de facto criminalisation of most of the human rights, rule of law and peace-building work currently being carried out in Ethiopia.
Human rights groups have seriously questioned Ethiopian government's claims that its draft Charities and Societies Proclamation law is a "benign attempt to promote financial transparency" among NGOs and "enhance their accountability to stakeholders."
Rather, they found the law's key provisions to be "blunt and heavy-handed mechanisms to control and monitor civil society groups and simultaneously punishing those whose work displeases the government. It could also seriously restrict much of the development-related work currently being carried out by some of Ethiopia's key international partners, the HRW and AI said.
"Ethiopia's government has already made meaningful public engagement in governance impossible in many areas by persecuting its critics and cracking down on freedom of expression and assembly," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"The clear intention of this legislation is to consolidate that trend by taking the ‘non' out of ‘nongovernmental' and putting civil society under government control."
The law would apply to every NGO operating in Ethiopia except religious organizations and those foreign NGOs that the government agrees to exempt. Many of the key provisions of the draft law would violate Ethiopia's obligations under international human rights law and fundamental rights guaranteed in its own constitution, including the right to freedom of association and freedom of expression.
Once operational, the law would impose "stiff criminal penalties" on anyone participating in "unlawful" civil society activity, accord government agencies nearly 'unfettered discretion" in deciding whether to register individual NGOs, as well as defined any unregistered civil society "unlawful".
It would also impose fines and prison sentences of up to 15 years for a range of new offences including participation in any meeting held by an "unlawful" organisation, subject all civil society groups to intrusive government control and surveillance and even disband legally recognised NGOs through an established Charities and Societies Agency.
The law bars foreign NGOs from doing any work related to human rights, governance, protection of the rights of women, children and people with disabilities, conflict resolution and a range of other issues. It also strips Ethiopian human rights NGOs access to foreign funding.
Human rights groups said the passing of the law would further narrow Ethiopia's already-limited political space.
Over the years, the Ethiopian government has been condemned for its pattern of human rights violations, repression, harassment of political opponents and human rights defenders critical of the government. The trends have accelerated since disputes over the 2005 controversial elections results led to street protests, culminating in the arrest of opposition politicians and leading activists on charges of treason.
Official tolerance of political dissent, already thin, has waned markedly in the years since then. Formal political opposition has largely evaporated in most of Ethiopia. April's kebele and wereda elections saw the ruling party running unopposed in most constituencies and winning more than 99% of all seats.
"This law is not just an assault on independent civil society organizations," said Michelle Kagari, deputy Africa director at Amnesty International. "It's part of a broader effort to silence the few independent voices that have managed to make their criticisms of the government heard in an increasingly repressive climate."
The two groups blamed Ethiopia's bilateral donors - United States and Britain - for their public silence in the face of the worsening human rights records, including the crimes committed by Ethiopian forces in Somalia, despite providing the country with more than US $600 million in foreign aid each year.
Addis Ababa authorities would not also succumb to a range of intensive national and international discussions to rescind its decision.
"Ethiopia's bilateral partners have consistently failed to speak out publicly against severe patterns of government-sponsored human rights violations," Gagnon said. "Their policy of silence has had the effect of helping to embolden the Ethiopian government to make further assaults on human rights, exemplified by the draft NGO law."
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