Government Outlaws Most Human Rights Work, Imprisons Opposition Leaders
January 8, 2009
In the space of just eight days, the Ethiopian government has outlawed independent human rights work and jailed one of the country's most prominent opposition leaders for life.
Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - On January 6, 2009, Ethiopia's parliament enacted a new law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that criminalizes most human rights work in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch said that the law is a direct rebuke to governments that assist Ethiopia and that had expressed concerns about the law's restrictions on freedom of association and expression.

The action comes just a week after the government reversed an earlier pardon and rearrested one of the country's leading opposition politicians on flimsy grounds and said she will serve out a life sentence, highlighting a growing trend of political repression.

"In the space of just eight days, the Ethiopian government has outlawed independent human rights work and jailed one of the country's most prominent opposition leaders for life," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government is conducting an all-out assault on any kind of independent criticism."

The Ethiopian government claims that the new law, known as the Charities and Societies Proclamation (NGO law), is mainly intended to ensure greater openness and financial probity on the part of nongovernmental organizations. But instead it places such severe restrictions on all human rights and governance-related work as to make most such work impossible, violating fundamental rights to freedom of association and expression provided for in the Ethiopian constitution and international human rights law.

The law considers any civil society group that receives more than 10 percent 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 host of other issues. Because Ethiopia is one of the world's poorest countries, with few opportunities for domestic fundraising, such constraints are even more damaging than they would be elsewhere. Under the law, groups based outside the country, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, are barred from doing human rights-related work in Ethiopia.

The law also creates a new government entity, the Charities and Societies Agency, with sweeping powers and an arsenal of onerous and byzantine requirements that will enable it to choke off independent civil society activity with red tape. The right to appeal is severely limited and is not extended to so-called "foreign" groups at all. Human Rights Watch has produced a detailed analysis of a recent draft of this law. The enacted law is not substantially different from that draft.

"The NGO law is repression, not regulation," said Gagnon. "If enforced, this law will make Ethiopia one of the most inhospitable places in the world for both Ethiopian and international human rights groups."

Human Rights Watch said the law is especially alarming because the government already permits very little independent civil society activity or peaceful dissent. The country's preeminent human rights group, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), is almost alone in producing extensive reporting inside Ethiopia on human rights abuses. In response to its reporting of government repression following Ethiopia's 2005 national elections, many of its staff were forced to leave the country or spent time in prison. Under the new law, the group will be considered a foreign human rights group because it receives most of its funding from international donors such as the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC. It will either have to abandon its work or do without the funding it needs to meet its costs and pay its staff. 

Countries that provide assistance to Ethiopia, including funds that keep the government afloat, have generally turned a blind eye to government abuses. However, many expressed private criticism of the NGO law, viewing it as a major step toward institutionalizing repression and creating impediments to development, which many support through Ethiopian NGOs. Human Rights Watch urged donor states to press for significant amendments to the new law or for its repeal. In the short term, they should urge the Ethiopian government not to enforce its most damaging provisions.

"Countries supporting Ethiopia should insist that the NGO law be substantially amended or repealed," Gagnon said. "Anything less would be a green light for even more egregious acts of repression in the coming year."

The new law is part of a broader trend toward political repression. Even though the country's political opposition has fractured since the 2005 elections and poses little real threat to government control, the authorities have continued to subject opposition leaders and activists to harassment and abuse. Within the past two months, the government has detained without charge two prominent opposition leaders. Bekele Jirata, the secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, was arrested in November and accused of plotting terrorist attacks. He has been in prison for more than a month even though the government has failed to produce any evidence against him or file formal charges. On December 28, Birtukan Midekssa, chairperson of the opposition Unity for Justice and Democracy party, was arrested in the street and imprisoned on old charges that Human Rights Watch believes are politically motivated.

Birtukan had been arrested in November 2005 along with dozens of other opposition leaders who encouraged public protests after losing the controversial 2005 elections. Government security forces put down those protests by force, killing hundreds of unarmed demonstrators. Birtukan was convicted of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and sentenced to life in prison. She was pardoned after lengthy negotiations and after she spent 18 months in prison. The government claims that her pardon was conditional on an apology for her crimes. It says it ordered her re-arrest over reports that she had publicly denied having apologized for her actions or asking for a pardon, and that she will now be imprisoned for life.

Ethiopia's already-dire human rights record has worsened in recent years. Ethiopian military forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in two conflicts in Ethiopia and in neighboring Somalia, with no meaningful effort to hold those responsible to account. Federal, regional and local officials have regularly harassed, arbitrarily detained, and subjected to torture critics of the government, and have denounced human rights groups that expose these problems. As a result, there is little independent criticism and political opposition in most of the country. In local elections in April 2008, the ruling party and its allies won more than 99 percent of more than 4 million elected positions, most in uncontested races.