Ethiopia: Human rights work crippled by restrictive law
A law in Ethiopia is crippling human rights work in the country, forcing organizations to cut programmes, close offices and lay off staff, according to an Amnesty International report published today. "Stifling human rights work: the impact of Ethiopia’s civil society legislation" describes how the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation puts in place restrictions on organizations working on human rights and allows for excessive government interference. The result is that people in the country have less access to independent human rights assistance.“Rather than creating an enabling environment for human rights defenders to work in, the government has implemented a law which has crippled human rights work in Ethiopia” said Michelle Kagari, Amnesty International’s deputy Africa director. “The space to make legitimate criticism is more restricted than ever.”The law places severe funding restrictions on organizations working on human rights which are at the same time vaguely worded and therefore open to interpretation. Human rights defenders risk imprisonment if they violate these vaguely defined provisions. They are afraid to speak out, and often resort to self-censorship, in order to avoid repercussions. The Charities and Societies Proclamation violates Ethiopia’s constitution and international human rights obligations.The law has changed the face of civil society in Ethiopia. Human rights organizations have shrunk in number and in size, having to cut programmes, close offices and lay off staff. The law has been used by the government to freeze assets of more than US$1 million belonging to the country’s two leading human rights organizations.“The claim of the Ethiopian government that they want to protect human rights cannot be taken seriously while this law continues to be implemented,” said Michelle Kagari. “The government must amend the law and remove restrictions on human rights activities.”The Ethiopian people suffer most as a consequence of the law because human rights organizations cannot reach the most vulnerable. There continue to be unabated allegations of human rights violations, often linked to the Ethiopian security forces.For example, during 2008, before the law was passed, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) provided free legal aid to over 17,000 women in addition to other activities that tens of thousands of participants benefited from. Today, EWLA is barely functioning, with limited legal aid for women provided by volunteers. The Charities and Societies Proclamation, together with the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Mass Media Proclamation have all severely limited Ethiopian individuals’ freedom of expression and, specifically, their ability to criticize their government. In this context the government of Ethiopia continues to be responsible for widespread human rights violations, under ever-decreasing scrutiny.Amnesty International is urging the government of Ethiopia to amend the law to remove the restrictions on human rights activities, and to recognize, respect and protect the vital work of human rights defenders.