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(New York) - Ethiopia's parliament should reject a draft law that would criminalize human rights activity and seriously undermine civil society groups, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on donor governments to speak out publicly against the bill, which is expected to be introduced in parliament this month.

The Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO law) would provide the government a potent tool to intimidate and weaken Ethiopia's long beleaguered civil society. Although the bill has been revised twice since May 2008, the current version retains many of the most alarming provisions.

"The only reason to have such a repressive law is if it would be used to strangle Ethiopia's few remaining independent voices," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Donor governments should make clear to Ethiopia that enacting this law will threaten future funding."  

The CSO law would bar both foreign and Ethiopian organizations that receive more than 10 percent of their funding from abroad from undertaking any activities in human rights, gender equality, children's rights, disabled persons' rights, conflict resolution and strengthening judicial practices and law enforcement, among related activities. The law would also exclude groups that are largely funded by Ethiopians living in the diaspora from working on these issues. The law would carry severe criminal penalties for violations, including three to five years of imprisonment for minor administrative violations.

The draft law would establish a Charities and Societies Agency that would have enormous discretion to "regulate" civil society organizations, with few procedural safeguards and virtually no right of appeal of most of its decisions. Agency officials could arbitrarily refuse to register an organization, order organization staff or leadership suspended and make onerous demands for documents and other information.

The proposed law violates Ethiopia's obligations under its own constitution, regional African treaties and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Ethiopian officials claim that the law is intended to create "improved mechanisms to monitor nongovernmental organizations," but the bill presents a far more intrusive regulatory framework than legislation adopted by many other countries, including Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa. 

"Ethiopia claims the civil society law would promote accountability, but other countries achieve this without banning human rights activity," said Gagnon. "As the seat of the African Union, Ethiopia should be at the forefront of efforts to promote good governance instead of a leader in civil society oppression." 

Independent or critical voices, including those of political opposition, already face increasing pressure in Ethiopia. The country's human rights situation has markedly deteriorated since the disputed 2005 elections, when security forces killed scores of demonstrators during street protests and arbitrarily arrested tens of thousands of others.

The government detained dozens of human rights defenders, opposition leaders and journalists in November 2005 and tried them on treason charges. More than 100 of these people, including 25 journalists and publishers, were finally acquitted in April 2007, and 38 people, mostly opposition leaders, were pardoned in July 2007 after pleading guilty. Two civil society activists who were arrested in the same round-up and refused to plead guilty were finally released in March 2008 after spending more than two years in prison and being convicted on baseless charges of incitement.

Ethiopia's bilateral donors provide more than US$1 billion in aid each year to what is one of the world's poorest countries and an important ally in regional counterterrorism efforts. Key governments, including the United States, France and the United Kingdom, have quietly pressed the Ethiopian government to amend the most repressive provisions of the proposed law, to little apparent effect.

Donor governments have refused to condemn serious human rights abuses in Ethiopia publicly, claiming that quiet pressure achieves more impact. Over the past two years, though, Ethiopian security forces have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, both within Ethiopia and in neighboring Somalia, without being called to account for their actions.

"Quiet diplomacy has failed to convince the Ethiopian government to address serious abuses," said Gagnon. "Donors need to say loud and clear that continued repression will have financial consequences."

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