‘International civil society should spread awareness of the devastating effects of Ethiopian law’: interview with Endalkachew Molla, Director, Human Rights Council, Ethiopia

Endalkachew Molla Demilew is the Director of Ethiopia’s Human Rights Council (HRCO), responsible for coordinating the operations of the head and branch offices, establishing links and partnerships with governmental and non-governmental institutions, human rights activists, aid organisations, CSOs and the media, and overseeing HRCO’s human rights reporting and monitoring procedures. Previously he has held positions in both governmental and non-governmental institutions. Here, he tells us about his experience of working under the new CSO law introduced in 2009, the CSO Proclamation, described at the time  as “one of the most restrictive laws in the world” for civil society by Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association.

The CSO Proclamation that was introduced in 2009 raised a significant amount of international attention at the time. What has been the impact of this legislation over the last three years?

Firstly, it must be highlighted that the CSO Proclamation is inconsistent with Ethiopia’s human rights obligations set out in the constitution and international human rights instruments. The exercise of the right to freedom of association has without a doubt been compromised by introduction of the Proclamation. As a direct consequence of the legislation, CSOs working in the field of human rights have been forced to reduce the size and scope of their activities. HRCO’s experience, of having closed nine of its 12 branches and laying off 80 percent of its staff, clearly illustrates this point. The reduction of HRCO’s capacity, as is the case with most CSOs working on human rights issues, not only threatens HRCO’s survival, but deprives Ethiopians of essential rights-based services and information, which are in short supply in Ethiopia.

The number of Ethiopian organisations conducting human rights activities has also been significantly reduced, with many organisations forced to dissolve completely or change their mandate to focus on development issues. This contraction is principally a result of requirements under the CSO Proclamation that CSOs working on seven rights-related areas generate 90 percent of their funds from local sources. The irony of course is that the Ethiopian government relies on foreign donors to fund upwards of 40 percent of its budget.

Working within the confines of the CSO Proclamation has been made even more challenging by the Charities and Societies Agency, with was created to oversee the implementation of the Proclamation, and has broad discretionary powers to approve or deny mandatory applications to conduct domestic resource mobilisation. In HRCO’s experience, securing a permit to conduct a fundraising event is a protracted affair replete with redundant inquiries, delayed responses and contradictory requests. Added to this is the prohibition on anonymous donations, which, coupled with the recent clampdown on peaceful, independent dissent, has greatly discouraged people from coming forward and supporting HRCO.

There are reports of increasing numbers of activists, journalists and opposition political figures being detained. Has this led to a shrinking of space for civil society and can you tell us more about this trend?

Over the last two years, we have seen heightened intimidation and imprisonment of journalists and opposition political party figures. This has sent a clear message to civil society that exercising your right to freedom of expression and association has its costs. This discouragement of civic engagement has brought a palpable sense of trepidation and has worked to discourage the cohesion and agency of civil society in Ethiopia. Independent CSOs, including HRCO, are frequently the target of unfounded negative propaganda campaigns, which has contributed to peoples’ reluctance to support HRCO and other non-governmental human rights organisations.

I understand the Ethiopian government introduced a new directive in 2011 commonly referred to as the 70:30 Clause. Can you explain what this is and how it is affecting civil society?

Anyone can agree that as a principle an organisation should spend within a 70/30 ratio of programme to administrative expenses. The problem is that the Charities and Societies Agency has issued a wealth of often unclear directives, which treat all CSOs as a common type and fail to recognise the differences of mandates and priorities within civil society. For example, the Agency may broadly interpret payments to an employee as an administrative cost, which means a payment made to a human rights trainer as well as the cost of renting a training hall can be considered as an administrative fee. This interpretation of the 70/30 principle detracts from the effective implementation of programme activities as CSOs are forced to spend a disproportionate amount of time and resources to secure adequate funding and navigate the arbitrary and arcane nature of the directives.

What are the key challenges faced by civil society in Ethiopia and how can regional and international civil society groups offer support to colleagues in Ethiopia?

There is no denying that the strength and reach of domestic civil society is in large part contingent upon the amount of financial resources available to CSOs. In 2009, with the adoption of the CSO Proclamation, the government made it abundantly clear that it would censure organisations which continued to work on human rights activities by truncating access to funding. With so few opportunities for domestic fundraising, Ethiopia’s remaining human rights organisations are now condemned to work with insufficient resources. The first step to creating an enabling environment for Ethiopian civil society, which is the purported intention of the Proclamation, is remove the current draconian restrictions on access to foreign and domestic funding.

With the growing isolation of Ethiopian CSOs, it is of vital importance that international and regional actors make added efforts to communicate and cooperate with Ethiopian civil society. Funding restrictions are not an excuse for the increasing inaccessibility of international actors.

Nearly three years have passed since the adoption of the CSO Proclamation. In consultation with Ethiopia CSOs, international civil society must ensure that the international community is constantly made aware of the devastating effects of the law. With arguably the most restrictive CSO framework law in the world, advocating for the repeal or amendment of the 2009 CSO Proclamation must be at the centre of all initiatives aimed at strengthening Ethiopian civil society.

16 April 2012

HRCO website: www.hrco.org