Amnesty International: Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa: Ethiopia

    ORAL STATEMENT BY AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL

    Item 9(b, iii): Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders in Africa: Ethiopia.

    Madam Chairperson, Honorable Commissioners,

    In 2009 the government of Ethiopia passed the Charities and Societies Proclamation to regulate the civil society sector. Two years after the law was passed, it has a devastating impact on human rights defenders in Ethiopia.

    The law places excessive restrictions on the work of human rights organizations. The law significantly restricts foreign funding for work on human rights issues, specified as: the advancement of human and domestic rights, the promotion of equality of nation, nationalities and peoples and that of gender and religion, the promotion of the rights of the disabled and children’s rights, the promotion of conflict resolution or reconciliation, and the promotion of the efficiency of the justice and law enforcement services. Organizations which receive more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources are prohibited from working on these issues. The law also puts restrictions on how organizations may dispense their budgets. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Ethiopian government is obliged to create an enabling environment for non-governmental organizations. Instead, the Charities and Societies Proclamation Places direct legislative impediment on their work.

    The Charities and Societies Agency established by the law has excessive powers of interference in the administration and running of human rights organizations. Among other concerns, the Agency has the power to demand any information or document in an organization’s possession, endangering the confidentiality of the testimonies of victims of violations, which could put those victims at further risk. The Agency also has the power to dissolve any organization and to transfer its assets to another organization selected by the Agency.

    Infringement of the law could lead to heavy fines or terms of imprisonment for human rights defenders. Because of this threat, human rights defenders are forced to adopt a very conservative interpretation of the vague definitions in the law, causing human rights organizations to self –censor in their activities under threat of repercussion.

    In practice, the law has significantly reduced and obstructed the vital work of human rights defenders in Ethiopia. Since the passing of the law, human rights organizations have decreased in number. At least 17 organizations have changed the focus of their mandate from human rights to development, including some of the most prominent human rights organizations in the country. Those human rights organizations who have survived the passing of the law have significantly scaled down their activities due to the impact of funding restrictions, offices have closed, large numbers of staff have lost their jobs. Development organizations have had to abandon a rights-based approach to development.

    Organizations which three years ago were among the most admired across the continent for conducting high quality, independent and reliable monitoring and documenting of human right violations, advocacy, promotion of women’s rights and other essential human rights work, are now struggling to survive. For example, the Human Rights Council, the country’s oldest human rights organization, conducting high quality field investigations of violations throughout the country for 20 years, has been forced to close 9 out of 12 offices, and lose over 80 percent of its staff. The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, formerly the country’s leading women’s rights advocacy organization, has lost 70 percent of its staff.

    The underlying impact of the Charities and Societies Proclamation has been to entrench still further, and even to institutionalize, the climate of fear pervading the work of human rights defenders in Ethiopia. A number of human rights defenders fled the country after the passing of the law. Organizations now self-censor in their activities. Most of all, the majority of human rights defenders are too afraid to speak out, or to have the experiences of their organization discussed or publicized.

    In his report to this session of the African Commission the delegate fro the government of Ethiopia spoke of human rights education and capacity building activities and a national action plan on human rights. These actions are to be welcomed. However, there are only some of the components of essential human rights work. Monitoring and documenting of human rights violations providing assistance to victims of violations in accessing redress, advocacy on restive laws, and holding perpetrators to account for their crimes are also essential components of the protection of human rights, and civil society plays a vital role in this work. These crucial functions of human rights defenders have been eviscerated by the Charities and Societies Proclamation.

    In restricting human rights organizations from doing their legitimate and essential work, the law has significantly affected the promotion and protection of the rights and freedoms of the Ethiopian people.

    These restrictions are particularly concerning at a time when the government’s record on the respect of human rights continues to deteriorate.

    The UN Human Rights Committee, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the UN Committee Against Torture, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the UN Universal Periodic Review process have all recommended that the Charities and Societies Proclamation should be amended or repealed.

    Amnesty International calls on the African Commission to:

    • Urge the government of Ethiopia to amend the Charities and Societies Proclamation to remove the significant restrictions place on human rights work within its provisions;

    • Seek an invitation from the government of Ethiopia for the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders to visit Ethiopia, and assess the operating environment for human rights defenders, in terms of the legislative restrictions in place and the harassment and threats that they face in their work.

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