Ethiopia curb on charities alarms human rights activists

By Mark Tran, The Guardian / January 26, 2009

Human rights activists have accused the Ethiopian government of tightening its grip on power through a new law on charity funding that they claim will criminalise human rights work and clamp down on political debate ahead of next year's elections.

At the core of the charities and societies proclamation (CSO law) that came into force this month, is a provision stating that any organisation receiving over 10% of its funding from abroad is a "foreign NGO".

Once designated as "foreign", an organisation is not allowed to engage in activities concerning democratic and human rights, conflict resolution or criminal justice.

Ostensibly, the law is designed to ensure those who engage in Ethiopian politics should be Ethiopian nationals. However, not even the largest human rights groups in Ethiopia can raise enough money domestically in what is one of the world's poorest countries.

Ethiopian officials say the law is simply in line with the constitution, which forbids foreigners from taking part in domestic political activities. But human rights groups and Ethiopians abroad view the law as a draconian act by an increasingly authoritarian government, especially since the contested elections of 2005.

The critics of the Meles Zenawi government say the law is but the latest in a series of measures aimed at cracking down on dissent, ranging from the censorship of the media to the arrest of opposition leaders. The US and Britain have tried to persuade the Ethiopian government, which is a major beneficiary of foreign aid, to dilute the measure.

"We appreciate that some of our concerns have been addressed," the Foreign Office said in a statement. "However, core elements of the legislation, notably the provisions on foreign funding and social advocacy, have not been changed. We are concerned that the law could limit the legitimate activities of Ethiopian and international CSOs undertaking development work in Ethiopia."

The outgoing Bush administration, which viewed Ethiopia as an important ally in its "war on terror", said this month that the law may restrict US government assistance to Ethiopia.

Organisations such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, the main group carrying out human rights monitoring, and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, a women's advocacy group, depend overwhelmingly on foreign money - by as much as 90%.

The only associations in Ethiopia that do not rely on foreign funds are the so-called mass associations, known as gongos, which are dismissed by critics as "impostors of democracy" because they are essentially ruling party or government-run organisations.

The law also provides for the establishment of a regulating body - the Charities and Societies Agency - with extensive, albeit unclear and arbitrary, powers over the registration of charities and over how they work.