Thursday, September 25, 2008

NGOs fear for human rights defenders in Ethiopia

Ethiopia recently launched a project of legislation, known as the Draft Proclamation on Charities and Societies, which could dramatically limit human rights activities in the country if signed into law later this year.

Jennifer Henrichsen/Human Rights Tribune - A new bill proposed by the government of Addis Ababa could limit human rights activities of foreign organizations in Ethiopia, as well as local organizations that receive more than ten percent of foreign funding. These organizations would not be allowed to carry out work on gender issues, children’s rights and the rights of disabled people, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report published September 11.

Foreign organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch could only work in these areas if they are granted written permission by the Ethiopian government, stated the report.

The proposed bill would also have a dramatic impact on independent, domestic organizations like the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, said HRW at a panel discussion September 18 outside the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Yoseph Mulugeta of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) and panelist at this event said his organization could be crippled by the bill. “The EHRCO earmarks around 400,000 US dollars annual budget and of which less than 2000 US dollars is raised locally,” said Mulugeta. “For many NGO’s, this [issue] is a matter of life or death,” he added.

An Ethiopian official present in the panel audience September 18 defended the proposed bill by saying that under the new law, foreign and foreign-funded civil society organizations could continue to work on poverty alleviation and economic development issues.

“Foreign NGO’s could still engage in humanitarian assistance, just not political activities,” Allehone Mulugeta Abebe, First Secretary of the Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to the U.N. said to HRT after the panel.

He cited last year’s expulsion of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from the Ogaden region as an example of alleged “political interference” that wouldn’t be tolerated by his government.

“The ICRC was expelled from the Ogaden region in Ethiopia because the government had evidence that those working with the ICRC were associated with the rebels,” Abebe told HRT. “Even in liberal democracies, it is not a right for the NGO’s, but a privilege of the government to allow NGO’s to engage in political activities,” Abebe added.

Yet, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) are worried that this new bill signals a trend in Ethiopia’s crackdown on human rights over the last several years.

In 2005, at least 78 people were killed and thousands arbitrarily detained following a contested political win by the ruling government’s party, said Amnesty International in a May 2006 report.

More recently, in July 2007, Yalemzawd Bekele, a human rights lawyer working for the European Commission in Addis Ababa, was “charged … with conspiring to commit an outrage against the constitution”, but granted bail pending a trial, said Amnesty International in his 2008 annual report.

“Ethiopia’s already-limited political space has already been narrowed through patterns of government repression, harassment, and human rights abuse since the controversy that followed the country’s 2005 elections,” said HRW in its report. “This [proposed] law would consolidate the trend narrowing political space by giving government the power to silence some of Ethiopia’s few remaining independent civil society voices,” said HRW.

Human rights organizations are also worried that this model will be used by other governments in Africa.

“As the headquarters for the African Union, Ethiopia sets the standards” and should not advocate the criminalization of NGO’s, said Julie de Rivero of Human Rights Watch at the September 18 panel.

The Draft Proclamation on Charities and Societies is expected to be reviewed during Ethiopia’s legislative session which begins in October.

Human Rights Tribune


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