[dehai-news] (VOA) Ethiopian Parliament Approves Law Criminalizing Many NGO Activities

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From: Biniam Tekle (biniamt@dehai.org)
Date: Wed Jan 07 2009 - 08:35:16 EST

  Ethiopian Parliament Approves Law Criminalizing Many NGO Activities By
Peter Heinlein
Addis Ababa
*06 January 2009*

Ethiopia's parliament has overwhelmingly approved a law that will sharply
restrict the activities of most civil society groups. The law has been the
target of scathing criticism from opposition parties, rights groups and many
foreign governments, including the United States.

The ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Party used its
massive parliamentary majority to push through a law that gives the
government broad powers over foreign funded non-governmental organizations.

The so-called Charities and Societies Proclamation prohibits any group
receiving at least 10 percent of its funds from abroad from promoting
democratic or human rights, the rights of children, or equality of gender or
religion. Violators could face stiff fines and sentences of up to 15 years
in prison.

Defending the bill in parliament, EPRDF whip Hailemariam Desalegn argued
that any group advocating democracy and human rights should be run by
Ethiopians, who should have control over the expenditure of funds.

Minister for cabinet affairs Berhanu Adelo, a top adviser to Prime Minister
Meles Zenawi, said Ethiopia needs NGOs to help with social development. But
he said it is not the job of NGOs to protect the rights of citizens. That,
he said, is the government's job.

Critics say the law effectively gives Ethiopia's increasingly authoritarian
government a large say in the affairs of as many as 3,000 charities and
civil society groups with a combined budget of $1.5 billion a year, much of
which goes to promote open society and multi-party democracy initiatives.

Opposition leaders were blistering in their criticism of the bill. Temesgen
Zewde of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, whose party leader was
imprisoned for life last week after a spat with the ruling party, called the
bill part of a government effort to create a one-party state.

"This is really a domination agenda, a single party agenda, all the other
stuff is simply window dressing. The agenda is to stifle these voluntary
public movements that are known to assist the democratic process, the
situation of human rights, and all other advocacies are vital and
necessary," he said. "They just don't want to see this. The EPRDF cannot
survive in that kind of environment."

Another opposition leader, Dr. Beyene Petros, says the new law will
effectively silence those capable of participating in the democratization of

"It is totally consciously designed to undermine and restrict the role of
civil society, because the ruling party is determined to advance the cause
of revolutionary democracy and part of the Communist order that is going to
be implemented in this country for the coming 30-40 years without anybody
looking or criticizing or having any idea about what is going on. So the
idea is to undermine the role of civil society," he said.

The United States and other western governments have voiced deep concern
about the effects of the new law. The Bush administration sent its top human
rights and democracy official, assistant secretary of state David Kramer to
Addis Ababa twice over the past six months to discuss the bill with top
government officials.

A U.S. embassy spokesperson Tuesday said the Charities and Societies
Proclamation appears to restrict civil society activities and the ability of
international partners to support Ethiopia's own development efforts.

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