Ethiopia: President Obama Should Urge Changes to Help Civil Society, Political Opposition July 24, 2015 Ethiopia
(Freedom House) — As President Obama prepares to visit Ethiopia next week, Freedom House has prepared policy recommendations for the White House, highlighting Ethiopia’s undermining of civil society, independent media, and the political opposition:
“The political environment during parliamentary elections held in May included arrest, harassment and intimidation of opposition members and supporters,” the letter says. “Apart from seriously eroding citizens’ faith in any prospect of an inclusive political framework, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s entrenched control over all levers of political power sends a strong signal that all avenues of legitimate dissent are closed, fomenting resentment that could lead to violent extremism.”
“Freedom House recommends that President Obama urge the Government of Ethiopia to undertake a comprehensive review of the country’s civil society and anti-terrorism laws and to release imprisoned journalists and peaceful political activists.”
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.
Ethiopia: Policy Recommendations, July 2015
In 2009, the Ethiopian Parliament passed the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSP), tightly restricting Ethiopian civil society organizations (CSOs). This includes limiting the amount of foreignfunding that organizations are allowed to receive to 10 percent. Legislation passed in 2009, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP) has been extensively used to silence critical voices including independent journalists and members of opposition political parties. These laws coupled with other government policies seriously limit the ability for independent voices to be heard.
Political Space and Inclusive Political Process
In May, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) conducted another tightly controlled national election and won all seats in both federal and regional legislatures. The political environment included the widespread arrest, harassment and intimidation of opposition members and supporters. Apart from seriously eroding citizens’ faith in any prospect of an inclusive political framework, EPRDF’s control of all levers of political power sends a strong signal that all avenues of legitimate dissent are closed, fomenting resentment that could lead to violent extremism. The rise in politically motivated killings of opposition activists after announcement of the election results in May and June (seven reported cases) shows that local officials believe that a total win for EPRDF means no space for opposition. Freedom House therefore recommends that during his visit, President Obama:
Urge the Ethiopian government to release members and supporters of opposition political parties imprisoned as a result of their peaceful political activities.
Encourage the Ethiopian government to undertake a thorough review of electoral laws and institutions to allow for a meaningful engagement of civil society in voters’ education and election observation activities.
Call on the Ethiopian authorities to take measures to address the concerns being raised by the country’s Muslim population. A positive first step in this direction could be releasing representatives of the Muslim community that have been in prison since 2012 being tried under the ATP.
Civil Society and Media
The CSP has effectively decimated human rights groups in Ethiopia. While the stated purpose of the CSP is ‘to aid and facilitate the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the development of the country,’ it has actually forced at least 10 prominent human rights and democracy promotion organizations to abandon their mandates in order to continue receiving foreign funding while others were forced to scale back their operations significantly. As a direct result of the CSP, Ethiopia’s leading human rights NGO, Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO, now HRCO), had to close 9 of its 12 regional offices and cut 85 percent of its staff. The Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association (EWLA), another prominent group, cut nearly 70 percent of its staff. Authorities also froze the bankaccounts of these groups. In addition to the severe restrictions the CSP imposes on funding and human rights work, the dysfunctional legal framework it put in place is actively undermining the role of civil society in development. A 2014 performance audit conducted by the Federal Auditor Generalfound that more than 85 percent of NGOs were not able to comply with one or more of the expenditure and reporting requirements. The Director of the Charities and Societies Agency, the government agency in charge of regulating NGOs, told parliament that if his agency were to enforce the CSP as written, all NGOs would have closed. During President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia, Freedom House recommends that he:
Urge the government of Ethiopia to undertake a comprehensive review of the CSP and the eight implementation guidelines (directives) that limit access to international funding for human rights organizations and their abilities to form networks and consortia.
In the short term, seek ways of making U.S. government funding accessible to Ethiopian human rights groups by setting up a special ‘human rights and civil society’ fund that is not subject to the 10 percent foreign funding cap. The European Union successfully negotiated such an arrangement with the Ethiopian government.
Welcome the recent release of five journalists and bloggers and call for the release of the remaining 11 journalists and bloggers as well as scores of peaceful opposition activists who are currently in prison.
Meet with human rights defenders, civil society activists and recently released journalists and bloggers as a demonstration of U.S government support and solidarity to their cause.
Human Rights and National Security
After Ethiopia’s most competitive elections in 2005 concluded with violence and the detention of hundreds of opposition members and civil society leaders, EPRDF moved to systematize the tools of political control through a series of restrictive legislation backed by intense crackdown on media and civil society intended to silence perceived opponents and critics. As a result, the operational space for legitimate opposition, independent media and human rights activists has been seriously constrained. The ATP is being used to pursue vigorous prosecution of opposition party members and journalists.
The excesses of Ethiopia’s counter-terrorism operations that include arbitrary arrests, widespread practice of torture, alarming trends of disregard to due process rights of detainees and excessive pre-trial detention have stifled legitimate dissent and created a profound climate of fear. Lack of accountability of security forces is exacerbated by a judiciary that is largely subservient to the executive and lacks institutional autonomy to exercise effective oversight and enforcement of constitutionally guaranteed human rights protections. Freedom House therefore recommends that President Obama:
Urge the Ethiopian government to review the provisions of the ATP that lay out an overbroad definition of legitimate activities of journalists and political activists as acts of terror.
Call on Ethiopian authorities to adhere to national and international standards of due process and fair trial in their treatment of detainees under the ATP; and establish an effective mechanism of accountability for law enforcement officials who commit human rights violations.
Offer US technical assistance in reviewing the ATP to bring it up to international standards, and train law enforcement and judicial personnel in international human rights principles and prudent counter-terrorism techniques.
Reiterate the need for civil society to be considered a partner rather than an obstacle in counter-terrorism efforts and stress the role civil society can play in addressing the underlying challenges and gaps that drive extremism.
Support for Human Rights and Democracy Promotion
Given the highly repressive political environment in Ethiopia, it is admittedly difficult to support those who risk their lives to promote democracy and human rights. But it is not impossible, and if such groups are to survive in Ethiopia, they need outside support. Even a small increase in democracy and human rights assistance can have an enormous impact in ensuring that local civil society is able defend the fundamental rights of all Ethiopians. Freedom House recommends that the Obama Administration:
Increase USAID’s democracy, human rights, and governance (DRG) budget for Ethiopia to support programs that aim to strengthen independent media and investigative journalism in an effort to stem growing trends of official corruption and other human rights abuses. The current obligated amount of $350,000 for DRG represents only 1.68 percent of the Agency’s obligated total funding for Ethiopia. Expand USAID programming to cover much needed capacity building support in digital security and human rights monitoring to civil society and digital activists.