Ethiopia’s 2009-2010 bid to become an EITI candidate country was unsuccessful due to concerns about a highly restrictive environment for civil society. The Ethiopian government, since September 2012 headed by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn following the death of Meles Zenawi, has publicly indicated that it intends to revive its candidacy. It has actively sought to enlist support for a renewed membership bid. Diplomatic sources have told Human Rights Watch that Ethiopia may seek reconsideration of its application in 2013. However, conditions in Ethiopia have not improved: the underlying factors and notably legislation that have led to the destruction of independent civil society remain intact and the government continues to clamp down on all forms and expressions of dissent. In fact, space for civil society, press freedom, and peaceful protest in Ethiopia has continued to shrink since 2010. Ethiopia does not meet the basic requirements for candidacy in EITI.
Whereas a central tenet of EITI is the free, active, and meaningful participation of civil society, in Ethiopia a once vibrant civil society has been largely dismantled. The government has coupled two repressive 2009 laws, the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO law) and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, with widespread and persistent harassment, threats, politically motivated prosecutions, and intimidation of civil society activists, journalists, and others who speak out on political issues or express views critical of government policy. The CSO law is one of the most draconian laws regulating nongovernmental activity in the world. It sharply restricts independent civil society activity and advocacy in the areas of human rights and governance, among others, and organizations and individuals who violate the law may be subject to criminal liability.
The Anti-Terrorism law also is being used to close down free speech and avenues for public debate, including press freedom and peaceful assembly. To date, 11 journalists have been convicted and sentenced under that law while doing their work as journalists; 2 other journalists are currently in detention, charged under the law. In addition, the government has intensified its surveillance of telecommunications, censorship of internet and jamming of radio broadcasting in recent years. The government has weakened the independence of core institutions such as the judiciary that could have served as important oversight bodies and kept government policy and practices in check. Instead, courts have colluded in the government’s crackdown on independent voices, permitted serious violations of due process in politically motivated and sensitive cases, and failed to respond to credible allegations by detainees of torture and mistreatment.
These measures have had the predictable and intended result of sharply curtailing the number of independent voices and the ability of existing civil society organizations to carry out even basic monitoring, reporting and advocacy. The EITI process is contingent on active and full civil society participation, which is not possible in such a context.
2010 Board Decision: An Important Precedent
In 2009, the government of Ethiopia applied to join EITI. One of the required five “sign-up indicators” for admission as a candidate is the willingness to work with civil society to implement the initiative. This was far from evident in Ethiopia, where the government had already begun to clamp down on fundamental freedoms. Most notably, in 2009 it adopted the CSO law, which imposed severe restrictions on the activities of civil society.
Sensitive to the challenge posed by Ethiopia’s candidacy in view of such restrictions, EITI’s Board took various steps to assess whether civil society would be able to engage effectively in the initiative before deciding how to proceed. As reflected in the minutes of EITI Board meetings and other records published on EITI’s websites, many Board members were concerned that Ethiopia’s harsh legal rules would restrict the activities of civil society groups who engaged in the EITI process. The Board sent a delegation to the country in early 2010 to gather more information and consult with various stakeholders. That mission concluded that the climate for civil society in Ethiopia was restrictive, as feared. It also reported that national stakeholders with whom they met in Ethiopia, including some civil society members, nevertheless supported the country’s application. The team that carried out the mission recommended that the Board defer a decision on Ethiopia’s application pending assurances from the government that it would specifically exempt from the law those civil society activities involving EITI. (As will be discussed, other Ethiopian and international organizations had sought such assurances but they have failed in practice.)
At the Board meeting in February 2010, some members argued in favor of granting Ethiopia’s candidacy, on the theory that involving the Ethiopian government in EITI might serve to open up more space for civil society, and the country’s application had the support of national stakeholders. Others expressed serious reservations: not only would it be impossible, in the absence of a binding mechanism, to guarantee protections for the civil society groups inside the Ethiopian EITI multi-stakeholder group, they argued, but EITI standards also require that other civil society groups also be able to actively participate in the EITI process. Given these concerns, the Board deferred a decision on Ethiopia’s candidacy “in effect, until the Proclamation on Charities and Society Law is no longer in place.”
The result was that, for the first time in its history, EITI had rebuffed a candidate expressly on human rights grounds. The initiative had made clear in this case that active and meaningful participation of independent civil society was a non-negotiable membership condition. Human Rights Watch acknowledged at the time the significance of the decision and urged that it set a precedent for all governments involved in EITI.
Sustained Government Commitment to Joining EITI
Ethiopia’s government, although disappointed by the rejection, proceeded with its own process in parallel to EITI. It launched the Ethiopia Revenue Transparency Initiative (ERTI) with a multi-stakeholder group and announced plans to produce an “EITI-like” report on revenues, initially envisioned for release by early 2012.
The government also remained determined to join EITI and expressed early interest in reviving its candidacy. At the invitation of the Ethiopia multi-stakeholder group, the EITI Secretariat visited the country in December 2011. The Secretariat’s aim in visiting, it explained in a note to the Board, was to assess conditions in Ethiopia in order to be able to make recommendations as to whether Ethiopia’s candidacy merited reconsideration. In a letter to the Board ahead of the trip, EITI’s Chair, Clare Short, proposed that the mission “seek to establish whether civil society representatives in Ethiopia are as able to engage in the process as freely as they are in implementing countries.”
The delegation’s assessment report was conveyed to the Board. The records show, however, that a scheduled discussion at the subsequent Board meeting on the Ethiopia assessment was dropped from the agenda. The most recent public notice from the Secretariat, updated in mid-2012, indicates that “Ethiopia is expected to renew its Candidature application once their ERTI report is completed.” Ethiopia’s mining minister was quoted in the media in October 2012 expressing the government’s continued desire to join EITI.
In 2012 and again in early 2013, diplomatic and other sources informed Human Rights Watch that the Ethiopian government had indicated that it may make changes to the civil society law to secure their admission to EITI. One possibility mentioned was an exemption to permit groups directly involved in the EITI process to access foreign funding, including from the EITI Multi Donor Trust Funds. According to these sources, Ethiopia’s government had succeeded in gaining support for its EITI candidacy from some governments and others on this basis. While Ethiopia has not formally petitioned to be reconsidered, to Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, it may do so in 2013.
Governmental repression of civil society in Ethiopia is far-reaching. The primary vehicles have been restrictions on the rights to freedom of association and expression, but other key rights affecting civil society are also under attack, and institutions that might act as a check on abuses of power have been gravely weakened.
Freedom of Association: Severe Restrictions on Civil Society
The 2009 CSO law delivered a terrible blow to independent civil society in Ethiopia. It forbids “Ethiopian” organizations from receiving more than 10 percent of their funds from foreign donors if they engage in broadly defined human rights, advocacy, conflict resolution, or governance activities. The law permits organizations to carry out technical service delivery activities as part of development projects without constraint, but bars them from activities that pertain to state policy, functioning, and accountability. It also imposes broad criminal liability on organizations and individuals for certain breaches. The law also established a regulatory body, the Charities and Societies Agency (CSA), to oversee the work of charities and societies. The law provides the CSA with broad discretion to arbitrarily cancel NGO registration and penalize organizations with both fines and criminal charges for administrative errors.
Recognizing the serious potential for the CSO law to be used to restrict nongovernmental activity, numerous foreign governments, as well as international organizations involved in development activities in the country, urged Ethiopia’s government to revise the proclamation prior to its adoption. After the law was promulgated, the Netherlands and some other donors threatened to withdraw their support. The Ethiopian government responded to concerns by providing written assurances to the World Bank that the law would not affect social accountability activities that are part of the development projects they fund. That promise has not been kept, however, showcasing the risks of trying to carve out a safe space in an environment where independent civil society as a whole is under threat. Any effort by EITI to secure specific exemptions from the restrictive legal framework within which civil society is operating could not adequately protect organizations involved in the EITI process (both those within and outside the multi-stakeholder group) from the more generalized clampdown on dissent, of which the CSO law is only one part. A number of governments, independent experts and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have unsuccessfully sought the repeal or substantial amendment of the law, citing its violation of fundamental guarantees on freedom of association.
The law has had a chilling effect. As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in July 2012, “The once vibrant civil society in Ethiopia has been whittled away as the space for them to operate freely has rapidly shrunk since the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation was passed into law.” Ethiopia's most important human rights groups have been compelled to dramatically scale down operations or remove human rights activities from their mandates, and an unknown number of organizations have closed entirely. Several of the country’s most experienced and reputable civil society activists have fled the country due to threats. Furthermore, in December 2009 the director of the Charities and Societies Agency arbitrarily froze the bank accounts of two of the country’s most prominent civil society organizations, despite having no such authority, forcing them to slash their budgets, staff, and operations. The accounts remain frozen at this writing, and, in a ruling that underscores the judiciary’s lack of independence, in October 2012, the Supreme Court rejected their appeal.
Freedom of Expression: Politically Motivated Prosecutions
The environment for freedom of expression in Ethiopia is dire. Ethiopia’s 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, among other highly problematic provisions, includes an overly broad definition of “terrorist acts” that can include acts of peaceful protest that result in the “disruption of any public services.” The law also includes vague provisions on support for, or encouragement of, terrorism, which can include reporting on banned terrorist groups, or others perceived by the government to fall into this category. The government has overwhelmingly used the law to detain and convict journalists, political opposition supporters, and peaceful protesters, rather than suspected terrorists. Thirty-four people, including 11 journalists and at least 4 opposition supporters, are known to have been sentenced under the law between late 2011 and mid-2012 in apparently politically motivated trials. Dozens of journalists and others have fled Ethiopia in the past years in fear of becoming targets of such repression. Forty-nine journalists fled Ethiopia in the past five years alone, a number only exceeded by those fleeing Somalia and Iran, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. All independent media houses have been forced to close or stop functioning.
In addition, the government has gradually tightened its surveillance and control over telecommunications, Internet and radio broadcasting over the past few years. Internet censorship and the jamming of radio broadcasts have become routine. A new telecommunications law deepens control over Internet service and satellite phone services. The climate of fear created by real or perceived government surveillance—on the ground but also of Internet and telephone communications—is so pervasive that it poses enormous challenges to even collecting information, much less expressing concerns or frustrations over government policy.
Other Fundamental Freedoms: Peaceful Assembly Under Attack
Additional government abuses in Ethiopia also raise concerns. Violations of the rights to peaceful assembly and to personal security since 2011 have been committed against members of the political opposition and the country’s Muslim minority. These abuses further weaken independent voices in society.
The Ethiopian government has responded sharply to unprecedented public demonstrations by elements of the Muslim community, which makes up at least 30 percent of the country’s population. In July 2012, Ethiopian security forces harassed, assaulted, and detained hundreds of protesters at the Awalia mosque. Numerous protesters and journalists were arbitrarily detained and beaten. According to credible sources, up to 1,000 people may have been detained in July alone. In the wake of the crackdown, 29 prominent Muslim leaders, activists, and others have been prosecuted under Ethiopia’s repressive anti-terrorism law. Their trial has been fraught with due process concerns. Some defendants have alleged ill-treatment in pre-trial detention. Since January 22, 2013, the High Court has closed the hearings to the public, including the media, diplomats, and family members of defendants.
Lack of Oversight Institutions
Effective accountability mechanisms do not exist in Ethiopia. In the current climate any meaningful criticism of the government—including by civil servants—could result in severe consequences to the career or liberty of the persons involved. As long as this climate persists, no government institutions can exercise effective oversight.
Institutional checks and balances have been deliberately undermined by the ruling party. For example, the courts have been weakened and have often been used as a tool of the government, particularly in political trials. In all of the recent high-profile anti-terrorism trials, courts have convicted defendants despite serious due process violations. Since the ruling party’s 99.6 percent victory in 2010, it has complete control over parliament. The Ombudsman and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission also lack independence from the government, an essential criterion in the Paris Principles, which set out basic standards for national human rights institutions.
EITI took an important stand in 2010 when it declined to admit Ethiopia as a candidate. At that time, EITI’s Board concluded that the severe legal restrictions imposed on civil society called into question whether EITI could function in such an environment. Three years later, there is a clear record of how the government has implemented this and other repressive laws to intimidate and muzzle independent voices. It is also clearer than ever that an exemption to the CSO Law for EITI activities would not afford any meaningful relief, in view of the many other tools used to silence dissent. Moreover, admitting Ethiopia as a candidate in the present circumstances would send a terrible signal about EITI’s commitment to core principles espousing the centrality of civil society participation to EITI.