Ethiopia Defends Proposal to Criminalize Many Foreign NGO Activities

October 14th, 2008 | by addis portal |

Ethiopia’s government is coming in for fierce criticism over a draft law before parliament that would prohibit or criminalize many activities of foreign charities and NGOs. VOA’s Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports the bill is almost certain to pass easily in a legislature overwhelmingly controlled by Ethiopia’s ruling party.

Ethiopian officials have told western diplomats that parliament will approve a proposed Charities and Societies Proclamation within weeks. The bill would give the government supervisory powers over non-governmental organizations that receive at least 10 percent foreign funding, including money from Ethiopians living abroad.

The text before lawmakers prohibits such NGOs from promoting democratic or human rights, the rights of children and the disabled, and equality of gender or religion. Violators could face up to 15 years in prison and fines up to $10,000.

Foreign NGOs have reacted with alarm to the bill, saying it could make it impossible for them to operate in Ethiopia. A group of ambassadors in Addis Ababa recently warned Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that passage of the Charities and Societies Proclamation could

Malnourished Ethiopian child (undated photo)
Malnourished Ethiopian child (undated photo)

mean the loss of untold millions of dollars in desperately needed aid.

The organization Human Rights Watch issued a statement urging Ethiopia’s lawmakers to reject the bill, calling it ‘repressive’. But the leader of an opposition parliament faction, Bulcha Demeksa, said he and like-minded lawmakers are powerless to stop it in the face of an overwhelming ruling-party majority. “The government is going to silence the NGOs and their leadership when they speak about human rights, when they spoke about democratic rights, when they spoke about giving democratic education to the citizens.”  

He continued, “The government does not like it, that is why the government wants to silence them, and I am very sorry about it, I am very hurt about it. I wish I could do something about it, because practically all the NGOs are doing something good for this country.”

A senior adviser to the prime minister, Bereket Simon, says NGOs will still be welcome to help fight poverty. But he says the bill is designed to prevent foreign interference in the country’s political affairs. “We need foreign NGOs to participate in poverty alleviation programs and to participate in development works, but we definitely believe the political realm must be left for Ethiopians. That is the prerogative of Ethiopians.”

Tom Porteous, the U.K. country director of Human Rights Watch says laws governing the behavior of foreign NGOs can be positive. But he says the draft before Ethiopia’s parliament is contrary to the country’s constitution. “NGOs should not be immune from accountability, and we would support efforts by the Ethiopian government to increase the accountability of civil society organizations.”

Porteous added, At the same time, many other countries in Africa have managed to achieve this without criminalizing human rights activities for example, and in fact this law contravenes not only international and regional African treaties on freedom of association and so forth, but it actually violates Ethiopia’s obligations under its own constitution.”

Ethiopian officials, however, say they see nothing repressive or unusual about the draft law. Bereket Simon says NGOs who stay out of Ethiopia’s internal affairs should have nothing to fear. “It is not repressive, because this is a matter that is between Ethiopia and foreigners, so foreigners have their domain, we have our domain. As a sovereign state which runs Ethiopia, we are designing our own law, and any foreigner who is ready to work in Ethiopia should come and see the law, and if it feels comfortable with the law, it can continue to work. If he does not feel comfortable, then we are not going to force them to work here.”

Bereket says the law is aimed partly at what he described as ‘NGOs collaborating with terrorist organizations’. He declined to elaborate.

There are an estimated 3,000 NGOs in Ethiopia. Their combined budgets are believed to be more than $1 billion a year.

Last year, Ethiopia’s government expelled the International Committee of the Red Cross, charging its workers with providing assistance to rebels fighting for independence in the country’s Somali region known as the Ogaden. The ICRC dismissed the allegations.  

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous nation, and one of the world’s largest recipients of international aid. The United States is the largest single donor to Ethiopia, with aid donations this year expected to top $800 million.  

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