Dear Foreign Minister,

We write to express Human Rights Watch's profound disappointment with your January 30 Presidential Declaration responding to the Ethiopian government's adoption of the Charities and Societies Proclamation. We urge you to immediately call on the Ethiopian government to substantially amend or repeal the new law, which is a direct and deliberate attack on independent civil society activity in Ethiopia and in violation of the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association. 

If implemented, the law may well succeed in muzzling most nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) seeking to promote human rights and good governance in Ethiopia.  Even if the law is not implemented, it creates a deeply chilling environment for civil society and is already influencing the planning and activities of organizations that fear they will be targeted by the legislation.

The EU's response to the law is not just inadequate, but marks an alarming retreat from principles the EU has defended in other contexts. Coupled with the simultaneous announcement of a new tranche of Commission aid to Ethiopia, the EU's actions send a clear message to the Ethiopian government that government assistance and political support will continue as usual irrespective of Ethiopia's appalling human rights record.

Ethiopia's parliament enacted the Charities and Societies Proclamation in January 2009 after the government revised the draft law several times but failed to address many of its most alarming provisions. While Ethiopia has every right to enact legislation that promotes the accountability and transparency of civil society organizations, the current law goes far beyond these legitimate objectives and instead creates a potent instrument for unwarranted state interference and repression.

The law labels every Ethiopian civil society organization that receives more than 10 percent of its funding from sources outside of Ethiopia-including Ethiopian nationals and EU programs-as "foreign." These "foreign" groups are barred from doing any work that touches on human rights, policing, conflict resolution, children's rights, gender equality and a host of other issues. It also creates a new agency with extraordinarily broad powers to interfere with and even shut down the operation of local NGOs, with severe limitations on the right to appeal its decisions to the court. We enclose a copy of an analysis we produced of a slightly earlier version of the law-subsequent changes to the draft did not substantively address the many serious problems we identified there.

The EU's January declaration on Ethiopia's new NGO law is remarkably weak and simply fails to acknowledge the law's direct attack on Ethiopian civil society. The declaration's bland assertion that the law "could potentially restrict the operations of civil society organizations" glosses over the reality that the law intends to make human rights and other governance-related work illegal for any civil society group that relies on any sort of foreign funding- a restriction that will affect the large majority of Ethiopian NGOs that try to work on these issues. This is not a matter of interpretation; the text of the law states this explicitly. But instead of acknowledging this reality, the EU declaration simply repeats the Ethiopian government's assertions in defense of the law.

The EU declaration also unnecessarily welcomes changes to initial drafts of the law that proposed extraordinarily severe criminal penalties. Those early drafts would have imposed prison sentences of between five and fifteen years for acts such as transmitting information on behalf of an unauthorized NGO, or attending a meeting convened by such an organization.  These provisions were appalling, but their removal does not change the fact that the law's primary purpose and result will be to intimidate and prevent independent civil society engagement on crucial issues of human rights and governance.

In other challenging contexts, the EU has stood up admirably and publicly against assaults on independent civil society. When Russia passed a similarly-repressive NGO law in 2006, the EU responded with a strong statement of concern that the law could "have a serious impact on the legitimate activity of civil society organizations in Russia."[1]  When the Zimbabwean parliament passed an NGO law in 2004, the EU said that "civil society should play a central role on the issue of governance, and that NGOs doing so unhindered are an essential part of a healthy democratic environment." The EU's declaration further noted that the law would "further reduce the democratic space in Zimbabwe" and that it violated "the principles of full participation of citizens in the political process, freedom of association and voter education. " The EU even warned that "If the Bill is implemented immediately, the EU's ability to provide assistance to Zimbabwe will be significantly affected."[2]

The EU's timid reaction to the Ethiopian law is profoundly unprincipled and is of serious concern not just because of the signals it fails to send, but because of the signals it does transmit. The fact that the EU's response was tepid in comparison to the reaction to equally repressive legislation in Russia and Zimbabwe conveys a message that Ethiopia is held to a lower set of standards. And the European Commission's decision to announce E250 million in new aid to Ethiopia on the same day the EU issued its statement on the NGO law was astonishing. Intentional or not, it is hard to imagine what EU member states and the European Commission could have done to signal more clearly that the NGO law was not an issue of real concern.

The EU's relationship with Ethiopia is an important one, and the assistance the European Commission and individual EU member states provide to Ethiopia is important to the country's people. But because the EU provides so much support to Ethiopia's government it has both the right and the responsibility to speak out against direct attacks on basic human rights. The Cotonou agreement with African, Caribbean and Pacific states is rooted in a mutual commitment to put these issues at the heart of the EU's donor relationship with Ethiopia and other countries. Human rights, democracy and the rule of law are essential elements of this agreement.  The spirit of that agreement, along with the EU's own principles, demands a more robust response to one of the most brazen legislative attacks on independent civil society anywhere in recent years.

It is not too late for the EU and its member states to play a constructive role in this situation. The right place to start would be to publicly urge concrete positive change by the Ethiopian government and clearly state that efforts to restrict civil society activity could have serious consequences, including on the flow of member state and Commission government assistance.

Both the EU and Ethiopia are bound by provisions in the Cotonou agreement and the EU should see it as its obligation to publicly call for the NGO law to be repealed or substantially amended in line with Ethiopia's own constitution and its obligations under international human rights law. The EU should make it very clear that it will invoke the dialogue and consultation procedure under article 96 of the Cotonou agreement should Ethiopia ignore its calls.  

As the EU has recognized in numerous documents, guidelines and action plans, protecting fundamental human rights is central to efforts to support democracy, good governance and development. Ethiopia should not be an exception to the EU's efforts to promote these important objectives. On the contrary, the strength and importance of relations with Ethiopia make it all the more urgent that where quiet diplomacy fails to achieve progress, the EU raises these concerns strongly and publicly. Millions of Ethiopians depend on the EU to stand behind the values they claim to promote.

We thank you for your attention to these concerns.

Sincerely,

Lotte Leicht
EU Director
Human Rights Watch

Georgette Gagnon
Africa Director
Human Rights Watch

Cc:
Dr. Javier Solana, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy
Mr. Louis Michel, European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid
Mr. Hans-Gert Pottering, President of the European Parliament
Mr. Josep Borrell Fontelles, Chairman of the European Parliament's Development Committee
Political directors
PSC Ambassadors


[1] Statement of the Presidency on behalf of the European Union on the enactment of the Russian Law on Non-profit Organisations  January 22, 2006.

[2] Declaration by the Presidency on behalf of the European Union on the adoption of the NGO bill in Zimbabwe, P/04/142, December 22, 2004.