Education International
Education International

Ethiopia: EI asks government to amend its draft bill on associations

published 31 July 2008 updated 31 July 2008

EI has written to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to deplore that the Charities and Societies Proclamation, a draft law, is a covert means of placing civil society organisations under government control. EI joined Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in their criticism of the proposed legislation.

Ethiopia's federal government claims it is attempting to promote financial transparency among NGOs and enhance their accountability to stakeholders. In fact, the new law will provide mechanisms to control and monitor civil society groups while punishing those whose work displeases the government. It could also seriously restrict much of the development-related work currently being carried out with international organisations, such as EI.

The law would apply to every NGO operating in Ethiopia except religious organizations and those foreign NGOs that the government agrees to exempt. Many of the key provisions of the draft law would violate Ethiopia's obligations under international human rights law and fundamental rights guaranteed in its own constitution, including the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression.

The new draft bill may have consequences for EI's member organisation, the Ethiopia Teachers' Association registered in 1949. This ETA has almost de facto ceased to exist now that the Court of Cassation has upheld prior court decisions ordering EI's ETA to hand over property, other assets and its name to the ETA established in 1993. In order to continue to exist, EI's member organisation needs to register under a new name, likely ETNA, Ethiopian Teachers' National Association.

Among the most damaging provisions of the proposed bill are articles that would:

Impose stiff criminal penalties for anyone participating in unlawful civil society activity. The draft law would accord government agencies nearly unfettered discretion in deciding whether to register individual NGOs, and then defines as unlawful any civil society group that is not registered. The draft law would impose fines and prison sentences of up to 15 years for a range of new offenses including participation in any meeting held by an unlawful organization. It would also make dissemination of any information in the interests of an unlawful charity punishable by imprisonment.

Subject all civil society groups to intrusive government control and surveillance. The draft law would set up a Charities and Societies Agency (CSA) with extensive discretionary powers to refuse to accord legal recognition to NGOs, to disband associations that have already been legally recognized, and to interfere in the management and staffing of associations up to the point of altering their organizational missions. The CSA would also have broad powers to monitor all activities of every organisation covered under the law. No association could hold any meeting without notifying the CSA in writing at least one week in advance, and the CSA and other government agencies would then be empowered to send police officers to attend and report on those meetings. (Actually, this would not be a big change for EI's ETA, whose meetings have regularly been forbidden or disbanded over recent years.)

Prohibit all activities carried out by non-Ethiopian NGOs that relate to human rights, governance, protection of the rights of women, children and people with disabilities, conflict resolution and a range of other issues.

Strip Ethiopian NGOs that work on human rights issues of access to foreign funding. The draft law defines as foreign any Ethiopian NGO that receives more than 10% of its funding from foreign sources or has any members who are foreign nationals, and then bars foreign NGOs from working on human rights and governance issues.

Should this law be passed, Ethiopia's already-limited civil society space would be further narrowed. Over the years, the government of Ethiopia has demonstrated a pattern of repression, harassment of human and trade union rights activists which creates an atmosphere of fear prejudicial to independent trade union activities in Ethiopia.