September 18, 2008 (ADDIS ABABA) — A U.S. official said concerned by a draft law that to regulate all domestic and international civil society organizations carrying out activities in Ethiopia.
Since last June the Ethiopian government presented the draft bill as a tool for enhancing the transparency and accountability of civil society organizations. But it is considered by Ethiopian civil society and international rights watchdogs as creating a web of arbitrary restrictions on the activities of civil society groups.
Last July Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on donor governments to speak out publicly against the de facto criminalization of most of the human rights, rule of law and peace-building work currently being carried out in Ethiopia.
"We take the law seriously. We’re concerned about it, and donors have raised the issue to the government," USAID assistant administrator for democracy, conflict and humanitarian issues Michael Hess told reporters in Addis Ababa today.
Hess said his government, a strong ally to Ethiopia, was engaged in talks with Addis Ababa to reconsider the bill.
"We’re in discussions with the government about the law. I think they’ll continue refining it," he said. "We have a healthy relationship with the government and Ethiopia is a strategic partner to the United States." He added.
The government amended some provisions of the original text of the bill. For example the original text bars foreign and foreign-funded NGOs from working on poverty alleviation or economic development issues. This restriction has been removed from the current text.
However it is seen as more repressive than the original draft. Already-draconian criminal penalties have been ramped up rather than eliminated, in some cases allowing for sentences of up to 15 years in prison for civil society actors who fall afoul of the law’s byzantine provisions.
Also, the range of areas of work that foreign and foreign-funded organizations are forbidden to work on has been expanded to include issues touching on gender issues, children’s rights, and the rights of disabled people.