ETHIOPIA: A new era for human rights organisations?

11/02/2019
Press release
en fa

Geneva-Paris-Brussels, February 11, 2019. After years of repression under the 2009 Law on Charities and Societies, the adoption of a more democratic regulatory framework reopens the space for civil society organisations (CSOs) and their engagement in human rights activities. While rejoicing in this important step forward, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, the Human Rights Council of Ethiopia, and the Consortium of Ethiopian Rights Organizations and the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia express their concerns about several challenges which the new law fails to address.

February 5, 2019 marked an historic date in the history of Ethiopian civil society. One year after the beginning of the political transition which led to the release of around a thousand political prisoners and human rights defenders, the peace agreement with Eritrea, and the opening of the borders to human rights defenders who had been living in exile for more than a decade, the House of Peoples Representatives adopted the revised Civil Society Proclamation 1113/2019, which repeals the Proclamation No. 621/2009.

The process by which the CSO Proclamation was revised by the Legal Advisory Council, the participation of local civil societies and the public hearing before the approval by the House of Peoples Representatives is an important harbinger of how the government shows its commitment to revising laws in line with international human rights norms ahead of the 2020 elections” said Yared Hailemariam, Executive Director of AHRE.

Under the previous framework, all organisations receiving more than 10% of funds from foreign sources were labelled as “foreign organisations”, and therefore prohibited from engaging in any human rights-related activity [1]. Under the effects of this law, at least 17 organisations were forced to either change their mandate or close down, while several others had to significantly reduce their activities.

Ethiopian civil society is very much looking forward to the entry into force of the revised Civil Society Proclamation and to experience positive changes in their daily operational environment. We believe that the restitution of CSOs assets, which had been frozen according to the previous law, and the facilitation of any re-registration process should be among priorities to enable Ethiopian CSOs to effectively revive their activities", said Biniam Abate, HRCO Executive Director.

The new law, which was adopted at the end of a highly participatory process which saw the engagement of local civil society organisations, addresses several of the concerns expressed in relation to the previous law. The funding constraints are lifted, and the powers of the CSO Agency are also limited in particular by the introduction of the right to appeal against the refusal of registration. This will allow all organisations, local and international, to work on human rights-related issues, and has already opened the door to several organisations which will now be able to end their exile.

After years of violent repression of the human rights movements in Ethiopia, we are extremely glad to witness this crucial change and we hope that the new CSO law will live up to the expectations by providing new impetus to the Ethiopian civil society movement. In this key moment, we need to stand as steadfast as ever on the side of local civil society organisations to be sure that they will be able to carry out their work free from hindrances, threats and legal restrictions” said Gerald Staberock, OMCT Secretary General.

Nevertheless, important constraints remain. Firstly, the CSO law opts for an authorisation rather than a registration regime, contrary to the recommendations of the ACHPR Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa [2]. This means that CSOs’ staff could be held criminally liable should the organisations be operating informally. Organisations which were already registered under the previous law will have to register again, thus imposing an additional and unjustified burden. Secondly, the majority of the staff composing the CSO Agency in charge of the registration procedure will be appointed by the government; and this body maintains ample discretionary powers to order closures and asset freezes of CSOs. The Board of the Agency, which is the appeal body over the decision of the Agency, is nominated by the Government, CSOs and by the judiciary system. Thirdly, the law imposes a cap on the administrative expenses of NGOs, which cannot exceed 20 % of the total budget thus limiting their independence and flexibility. Lastly, significant and vaguely defined restrictions remain with regard to the work of international organisations, which cannot engage in advocacy and lobbying of political parties nor in election monitoring without an explicit permission from the relevant authority.

This revision of the Civil Society Proclamation is a significant step forward. Yet, the persisting severe restrictions to the work of local and international organiastions hamper the full recognition of the right to freedom of association in Ethiopia. The authorities must ensure that civil society organisations are free to engage in regional and international synergies in their work for upholding respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country, and more broadly in our continent,“ added Sheila Muwanga Nabachwa, FIDH Vice President.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH. The objective of this programme is to intervene to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. OMCT and FIDH are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

The Human Rights Council of Ethiopia (HRCO) is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that works towards building a democratic system, promotes rule of law and due process, and encourages and conducts human rights monitoring.

The Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE) is a non-governmental, nonpartisan and not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the advancement of human rights in Ethiopia. AHRE is registered and based in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Consortium of Ethiopian Rights Organizations (CERO) is a consortium of Ethiopian Charities working on advocacy of human rights and governance issues.

For more information, please contact:

• OMCT: Marta Gionco: +41 228 09 49 39; mgi@omct.org
• FIDH: Samuel Hanryon, shanryon@fidh.org, press@fidh.org, +33 6 72 28 42 94
• AHRE: Yared Habtegiorgis: yhailema@gmail.com
• CERO: Mesud Gebeyehu: mesudg99@gmail.com

[1] See the Observatory press releases “Ethiopia: Law on Charities and Societies: Freedom of association in jeopardy!” published on January 9, 2009 and “Ethiopia: A decision by the Federal High Court undermines the survival of prominent national human rights organization” published on November 3, 2011.
[2] See the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa adopted in 2017 to strengthen and clarify the right to freedom of association and assembly established under Sections 10 and 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), article 13. The ACHPR was ratified by Ethiopia in 1998.

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