[dehai-news] ipsnews.net: RIGHTS-ETHIOPIA: Strangling Criticism

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From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Wed Jan 28 2009 - 06:08:41 EST

RIGHTS-ETHIOPIA: Strangling Criticism

Michael Chebsi

ADDIS ABABA, Jan 28 (IPS) - The Ethiopian parliament has voted into law a
controversial bill which bars any civil society organisation receiving more
than 10 percent of its funding from foreign sources from engaging in human
rights issues.

The new law, passed on Jan. 6, affects the majority of the 4,677 registered
Ethiopian NGOs. They are now prohibited from work touching in any way on the
subject of human rights, governance, criminal justice issues and others.

Out of the 547 lawmakers in parliament, 79 opposition politicians raised
their hands to veto the bill in vain. Opposition politicians are not the
only ones fuming at the latest bill. Humanitarian groups are also strongly
dismayed, considering it an attempt by the government to undermine the
ailing political space.

"Those are the rights of Ethiopian citizens. Foreign groups cannot simply
meddle in such affairs any more," says Berhanu Adelo, head of the Prime
Minister's office. The government considers any other option a "neo-liberal
rent-seeking philosophy" of trying to cripple and replace the government's
role in a society.

Failure to comply could potentially send an offender to jail for over a
decade. An individual found to be managing a charity or society violating
the new law would serve up to 15 years of imprisonment. Mere membership in a
charity organisation violating the new rules - or even attending their
meetings - is punishable by ten years behind bars.

The Ethiopian government claims the law is designed to ensure greater
financial transparency by civil society groups but the law includes
provisions that appear to go beyond ensuring transparency.

Keeping CSOs under close government observation will be a new body, the
Charities and Societies Agency which will have sweeping powers to enforce a
web of exhaustive reporting procedures.

Charities and societies organisations are required to maintain day-to-day
records of financial transactions and furnish an annual statement of
accounts to the Agency. Despite the requirement to submit an annual audit of
accounts by a certified auditor, an internal auditor or an auditor
designated by the Agency, an organisation can be subject to a random audit
of accounts. Furthermore, CSOs are required to submit to the Agency an
annual activity report outlining their major activities and other relevant
information along with a statement of accounts.

Foreign groups will be permitted to operate in the country only if the
government finds them essential, reads Addis Ra'ey, the ruling party's
monthly publication in its September 2008 issue. Under the law, the
government can dismiss them at anytime and they too have no right to appeal.
Groups based outside the country, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty
International, are barred from doing human rights-related work in Ethiopia.

The right to appeal is severely limited and is not extended to foreign
groups at all.

The move is considered an assault on CSOs by the administration of Prime
Minister Meles Zenawi. "In a poor country like Ethiopia, it is unrealistic
to expect 90 percent of funds to come from local sources," says Professor
Beyene Petros, chairman of United Ethiopian Democratic Forces party. This is
a clear attempt to bust the civil society, he told IPS.

"The law is a dedicated attempt by the Ethiopian government to avoid CSO
involvement in the next election," says Bernhard Meier zu Biesen, horn of
Africa regional director of Welthungerhilfe, a German based humanitarian
organization that funds its work from the EU and the German government.

Indeed on the eve of the last election in May 2005, Prime Minister Meles
Zenawi had made NGOs responsible for the steep loss of votes in Addis Ababa
and some regional towns. Most consider the approval of a law that
criminalises most NGO activities a move by the government to prevent
identical weakness at the polls although the opposition this time is not as
united as it was four years ago.

"Unfortunately the opposition in this country is very poor, disunited, weak,
and strategically immature. It seems that till the next election we will
have virtually no substantial alternative to the present party monopoly,"
Meier told IPS.

Ethiopia is one of the highest foreign aid recipients in the world,
receiving over 1.6 billion dollars in 2006. Most organisations rely on
foreign sources of funding. For instance, Pastoralist Forum Ethiopia, which
coordinates the work of 66 organisations to research and advocate the rights
of livestock herders, gets 97 per cent of its funding from foreign sources.
The Ethiopian Women Civil Societies' Coalition of 43 organisations also
earns almost all of its funding from non-Ethiopian donors.

It is feared that the new law will result in the closing down of many such
vocal and prominent organisations

Meier however advises all CSO-bodies to strengthen activities in cross
cutting issues like gender, participation and transparency. "By some
cleverness and skilful, artful approach mature CSOs can do a lot."


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