February 18, 2009

The EU should have condemned one of world's worst laws on NGOs. Instead, it gave Ethiopia €250 million.

On 30 January, European Union policymakers sent a clear signal to Ethiopia: no matter how repressive the government becomes, vast sums of aid will continue to flow. This is emerging as a case study in bad donor policy.

In January Ethiopia's government passed a law that is an attempt to muzzle local activists and prevent them from scrutinising the government's human-rights record. Among other things, the new law labels local activists as "foreign" if they receive significant funding from abroad and makes it illegal for these "foreign" Ethiopians to scrutinise the government's record on human rights, policing, conflict resolution and a range of other issues - even gender equality, children's rights and the rights of handicapped Ethiopians. It also provides the government with bureaucratic tools to shut down groups the government dislikes.

This anti-NGO law is among the worst in the world, comparable to those in Russia and Zimbabwe. When Russia passed its own repressive NGO law the EU responded sharply that the law could "have a serious impact on the legitimate activity of civil-society organisations in Russia". The EU responded to Zimbabwe's law with an even stronger warning that "if the bill is implemented immediately, the EU's ability to provide assistance to Zimbabwe will be significantly affected."

Private disquiet, public quiet

But EU policymakers have shown considerably less backbone about Ethiopia. When the Ethiopian law was first circulated, the EU, the United States - in fact nearly all of Ethiopia's key donors - expressed great alarm privately. It stood to reason that Ethiopia's government would take their concerns seriously. After all, Ethiopia is one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world, receiving well over $2 billion in foreign assistance every year. But Ethiopia's leaders passed the law anyway, cynically assuming that donors would quietly accept it. And they were right.

The EU's only reaction was a bland declaration urging the government to implement the law "in an open-minded and constructive spirit." It is impossible to imagine what this might mean, given that the law's dire intent and consequences are spelled out clearly on its face. The EU did not condemn the law, demand its repeal or even ask that its worst provisions be amended, and on the same day the European Commission announced plans to give Ethiopia €250 million in new assistance.

Public agreement, private complicity

Unfortunately this refusal to speak out against Ethiopia's abuses has become the norm for the EU and Ethiopia's other major donors, even though Ethiopia's human-rights record has steadily deteriorated. Ethiopia's leaders have done a remarkable job of convincing donors that they should be grateful for the opportunity to pour huge sums of assistance into the country. Privately many donor officials express fears that speaking out against government abuses could lead the government to discontinue their programs.

The result has been a dreary list of donor failures to speak out against repression and atrocities in Ethiopia. Ethiopia's military committed war crimes in neighbouring Somalia in 2007 and 2008, shelling whole districts of Mogadishu, and donors said nothing. When prominent opposition supporters and businesspeople were arrested last year on trumped-up charges of terrorism, donors said nothing- the victims still languish in prison without charge today. Even when Ethiopia's government used donor-funded food aid as a weapon of war to fight an insurgency in the country's arid Somali Region, donors said nothing. They failed even to press the government to allow independent inquiries into what was happening to the food.

Of course, donors cannot and should not dictate policy to Ethiopia's government and there is no question that Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries, needs support. But this does not mean that donors should ignore the reality that their important material support to that government carries with it a responsibility to insist on respect for Ethiopians' basic human rights. And the EU is legally obliged to do just this. The Cotonou Agreement, signed almost ten years ago, expressly requires the European Commission to condition its aid to Ethiopia and other countries on governmental respect for basic human rights. But the EU, like Ethiopia, is choosing to behave as though the Cotonou Agreement does not exist.

The EU has real leverage to push back against repression in Ethiopia, and it should do so instead of valuing chummy relations with Ethiopia's leaders above all else. Anything less makes donors like the EU member states and the European Commission complicit through their silence in these abuses.

Lotte Leicht is the EU director for Human Rights Watch.