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 Will Ethiopia’s civil society heal soon?

Will Ethiopia’s civil society heal soon?

Underscoring the power of the Media, those in the public relations game often say “There is no such a thing as bad publicity”. Although it is not based in truth, this common adage reaffirms the value of grabbing the public’s attention regardless of the intention– whether in good or bad. If there is a practical case that encapsulates the above notion in recent Ethiopian history, it is the massive attention given to a piece of controversial legislation called Charities and Societies Proclamation, rubberstamped by the House of peoples’ Representatives (HPR) in 2009.

The controversy surrounding this proclamation (which goes by its formal designation Proclamation No. 621/2009) had first emerged at the drafting stages; it endured criticism and backlash from both local and international bodies all through its ratification and during the time it stayed in force.

It has been singled out as one of the major restrictive legislations the House has enacted after the controversial and much disputed national election in 2005.  This Bill faced resistance almost immediately from local and international right groups as well as donors; and the argument was simple that the CSO proclamation (as it came to be known in the years to come) would bring restrictive regulation against the already weakening human right advocacy work and Ethiopia’s track record, in this regard.

Hence, this restrictive legislation has grabbed the attention of leading right activists, advocacy groups and Think Tanks around world, although without success in terms of pushing the Government of Ethiopia (GoE) to repeal the legislation.

The Bill has even moved up on the priority of some of the major rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Right Watches and other human rights watchdogs as it became a primary agenda in the annual reports of these rights groups.

Similarly, donor countries such as the US, UK, and other partners like the European Union (EU) and the United Nation (UN) have all used whatever diplomatic or political currencies they had to push GoE to reconsider this restrictive legal instrument. Although in vain, both rights groups and global partners warned the GoE that thee proclamation would regress the progress it has made in ensuring democracy, human right, and constitutionalism; not to mention, its direct conflict to the Ethiopian constitution as well as other international agreements it is party to.

Eventually, this controversial proclamation became synonym with Ethiopia’s human right and democratic track record.

Albeit negatively, the CSO law indeed contributed to promoting Ethiopia and its government in the global platform. The debate aside, the law is also believed to have brought about a visible impact in crippling the political and civic advocacy works there by earning the name an “authoritarian” government to the GoE.

Pundits argued that with the passage of the CSO law, the government’s relations with the civil society reached a new low.  This has also tarnished GoE’s image in the international community to a worse level than it was before the CSO law was enacted.

In a report released October 2008, Human Rights Watch, for instance, noted: “The climate for independent civil society organizations in Ethiopia has long gone and the likely impact of this law is still more ominous when understood in a broader context. Ethiopia’s limited political space has already narrowed down to a system of repression, harassment, and human rights abuses”.

Although on its preamble, the law states that it is aimed at ensuring “the realization of citizens’ rights” as well as to aid and facilitate the role of [civil society] in the overall development of the Ethiopian people.

According to some rights groups, there were two key provisions of this proclamation that have severely weakened the work of independent civil society organizations, particularly human rights defenders and the advocacy work on democratic governance. 

One particularly damaging provision of the CSO law prohibits foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from engaging in activism pertaining to human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, disability rights, citizenship rights, conflict resolution or democratic governance.

In connection to that, local NGOs that receive more than ten percent of their funding from foreign sources were considered as an international organization by default.

The very victims of the law are local organization working on various activism projects and right-based development programs, according to development activists.

Amnesty International remained a decisive voice against GoE’s human rights track record. The group pushed UN agencies and donors such as the US, UK, EU and others to take action on GoE for serious rights abuse as well as the restrictive laws including the other controversial legislation called the Anti-terrorism Proclamation.

One case is a statement that it (Amnesty International) wrote to the UN Human Rights Council [at its 20th Session that was 18 June – 6 July 2012].

For instance, its statement, Amnesty expressed its concern over the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation indicating that it places excessive restrictions on the work of human rights organisations.

“The law has had a devastating impact on human rights advocacy work, both in terms of practical obstacles it creates for human rights defenders, and in exacerbating the climate of fear in which they operate,” Amnesty’s letter said adding “the proclamation jeopardizes the observance and protection of the rights of every person in Ethiopia”.    

Similarly other none government organization at home and abroad have been lamenting the law for long, arguing that it brings “severe administrative restrictions” on the work of human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across the country.

As stipulated in its provisions, the law requires organisations to register in one of three categories: Ethiopian Charities or Societies, Ethiopian Resident Charities or Societies, or Foreign Charities.

But only Ethiopian Charities and Societies may work on human rights issues in Ethiopia while International NGOs are prohibited from working on them. Rights activists and development aid workers also say that not obeying the law can lead to serious fines or terms of imprisonment for NGO staff. 

Human rights work restricted in the law comprises “the advancement of human and democratic rights; the promotion of equality of nations, nationalities … peoples … gender and religion; the promotion of the rights of the disabled and children’s rights; the promotion of conflict resolution or reconciliation; the promotion of the efficiency of the justice and law enforcement services.”  

The CSO law explicitly prohibits ‘Ethiopian Charities or Societies’ - who may work on human rights – from receiving more than ten percent of their funding from foreign sources.  

The other issues which has been criticized by activists and later the government has also recognized after it undertook independent study is that of the ratio of financial spending; particularly administrative budget versus the project implementation budget.

According to the existing law, organisations are not permitted to spend more than 30 per cent of their budget on ‘administrative costs’. The lack of definition of ‘administrative costs’ means the provision could be interpreted to include, inter alia, the costs of investigating and documenting human rights abuses, the provision of free legal aid, advocacy, and other essential activities in the promotion and protection of rights and freedoms. In some human rights organizations all budgeted expenses could be interpreted as ‘administrative costs.’   

Other pressing challenges include the associated regulations and directives passed to help with implementation of the law. To enforce the law, the Charities and Societies Agency has so far issued around 20 implementing directives, which makes the operating environment for NGOs even more difficult.

For example, Directive 7-2003 (2011), places a bewildering number of complex and time and resource-consuming requirements on the income generating activities of NGOs. These include the need for a separate license for a profit making entity, start-up capital funded by the non-profit NGO, and a full-time accountant and manager separate from those of the non-profit NGO.

Non-compliance or engaging in the so called ‘unethical income generating activities’ can result in the revocation of the license and/or criminal charges. 

Even after that, the agency has issued further number of directives as well as regulations which are normally endorsed by Council of Ministers making the law even more discouraging and difficult for organizations to operate in their preferred project activities and right based development.

According to local NGO operators such as Meshesha Shewareged (PhD), Executive Director of CCRDA, a prominent consortium of hundreds of local and international organizations, more than anyone else local NGOs are the very victim of the law, having practically experienced the heavy burden of non-compliance and its detrimental impacts.

Since the vast majority of domestic human rights NGOs in Ethiopia receive the bulk of their funds from foreign sources, the law has forced most of them (local organization who were members of CCRDA and non-members) to either close their doors or drastically alter the scope of their work,” Meshesha told The Reporter.

According to Mesheshsa, before the new law came in to force in 2009 his consortium organization Consortium Christian Relief Development Association (CCRDA) used to embraced over 400 resident member charity organizations, engaged in various sectors of development activities, right based developments work as well as advocacy and related activities.  But the number of member organization under the consortium has sharply decreased since the enactment of the law.

Describing the damaging consequence of the law, he said that “today our nation, for instance, is experiencing resource based conflicts in various parts of the country. Before the law has come into force, we used to have member organizations working on conflict resolution projects among regional states. Though bringing peace is not mainly the works of NGOs, like it is not only for the government, the role of NGOs could not be undermined in conflict resolution; they could have made their contribution in maintaining peace had they not been restricted by such kind of law.”

 “Human rights or democracy or citizenship right cannot be insured only by government activity,” Meshesha told The Reporter, arguing the current mob violence and conflicts among the people in various parts of the nation should not have happened if the government was enough to fight corruption and maladministration.

But after all this long, the life time of this restrictive law has finally come to its end, last week. With the newly proposed draft bill, the government has recognized all the major articles that have long been criticized and cursed by most of local and international rights groups as well as donor countries.

Along the draft bill’s provisions, government has placed detailed explanatory document consisting of the rational to bring about the new draft bill and the findings of research that was carried out to identify key challenges and deterring factors of the existing law with an eventual consequence on nation’s overall development activities.

For instance, in a 12-pages explanation document attached with the draft bill the finding of the research says, "Since the law required registering organizations based on their finance source, it explicitly categorizes locally established organizations as Ethiopian Charities/Societies and Ethiopian Resident Charities/Societies. But only Ethiopian Charities and Societies may work on human rights issues in Ethiopia while International NGOs are prohibited from working on them.

“While this specific provision prohibits organizations from offering education services and discussion forums to citizens on the human right and public accountability, their operation has been limited only on service delivering. This restriction has ironically paved way for the expansion of corruption, the rising of public grievance as well as disappearing of alternative discussion forums that has also prompted wider mal-administration and public outrage.”

It further identifies that because of the aforementioned problems in the existing law, it has not been able to find alternative access that charities/societies could have offered in helping the development of culture of democracy. The document also explains how several projects such as on the rights of women, children and people with disabilities have been decreasing over the past decade for they could not solicit finance from foreign sources.

As a showcase the findings of the research cited the Ethiopian Professional Lawyer Association which used to offer free legal service for up to 18,000 people in a year before the proclamation and how that number decreased to around 5,000 after the law came in to force.

“Research activities and advocacy tasks that could have contributed inputs for improvement of biased laws and enacting new legislation have been suspended due to financial limitation. Meanwhile Charities and societies who used to work on children and socio-economic rights have either shifted their engagement to development sectors or shutdown due to budget constraint,” the document reads.

This finding, in fact, seems far more contradictory to the position of the government during endorsement of proclamation in 2009.

For instance, back in 2010, a year after  the proclamation was passed by the parliament, the then Chief of Cabinet for the Prime Minster, Birhanu Adelo dismissed criticism of the CSO law, stating that “protecting the rights of citizens is the role of the government and…not the role of the NGOs.”

Today, the government’s view seems have turned on its head, which is hoped to be a new light to civil society organization operating in Ethiopia.

The existing proclamation established a Charities and Societies Agency with almost unrestricted powers over non-governmental organizations. Particularly, the provision which stipulates the power and duty of the agency is seen as one of the stringent provisions by legal experts. Its power includes government surveillance and direct involvement in the running of organizations, and the power to suspend licenses and confiscate and transfer the assets of any organization. The unlimited power of Agency has been, of course, one of the major concerns of rights groups. For instance, the Agency can demand any document in any organization under its purview.

This could include the testimonies of victims of violations, contravening the essential principle of confidentiality and potentially further endangering victims of human rights violations.  In contrast, government on its part has been downplaying these concerns with the accusation of having the intent to destabilize Ethiopia and interfere in nation’s development.

Now, it appears that government as well shares concern of excessive power bestowed on the Agency.

“The highest number of Ethiopian resident Charities and societies as well as international organizations could be shut down by the agency without court decision,” document says.

“Hence, this law has been identified as contradicting constitutionally granted the right of being equal before the law and the rights to justice,” according to the explanation document.

For development operators the law has not only impacted the existence of the NGOs but also affected the social capital of the community throughout the country.

According to Meshesha, the first impacts that the law has already brought up on NGOs is that it has destroyed the fundamental philosophy of any development activity should not be separated from right based approach.

“For instance government may undertake particular development like building a school or other service facility for the society. As a doctrine we believe that the school that government has built should not be taken as a gift but as delivery on it duties to the society. Rather, it is its obligation to deliver efficient service to its citizen. The community has the right to get efficient education or other service,” he told The Reporter, adding that “it is that philosophy the law has destroyed over the past ten year”.

Overall provisions of the law has shown that the government wants simply to undertake servicization or commoditization of development, mainly aiming at separating development from right-based approach like citizens’ right, ensuring freedom as well as social accountability, he argues further.

“As the governments keeps insisting on service delivery alone, this has created impediments on awareness of public consciousness, prevent citizens from exercising their natural and constitutional rights,” he added.

A new down of hope

According to Meshesha, the other bitter truth is that the law has affected the nations by denying foreign currency access it could have tapped from NGOs from their budget they would bring for rights-based development and advocacy operations. For instance, NGOs are investing over one billion dollars yearly even under the restrictive law, he says.

All in all, Meshesha sees a new down, one of hope for NGOs, advocacy work and development in Ethiopia. “We see light at the end of the tunnel,” he concludes.

Nevertheless, the House received the new draft bill just last week. It has already referred it to its Law, Justice and Administrative and Social Affairs Standing Committees for further reading. As a procedure, the standing committee will also call public hearing on the draft bill to get further inputs and suggestions. But it seems that the Committee will bring it back to the House without major changes since it has not been met with challenges. And, stakeholders such as NGOs and donors seem to be viewing the repeal, positively.