This post details the major changes of the 2019 Organizations of Civil Society Proclamation No. 1113/2019 proclamation which aims to open space for CSOs to contribute to the country’s democracy and human right promotion. While the analysis ”Negotiating international civil society support: the case of Ethiopia’s 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation” sheds light on the process of international negotiations of the old proclamation and outlines the consequences of the proclamation for international civil society support in Ethiopia, the current post presents the differences of the two laws. It concludes by looking forward to the upcoming 2020 general election of Ethiopia.
During the 1990’s most CSOs in Ethiopia worked on “service delivery which has its roots in humanitarian assistance”. The engagement in other policy areas only started to develop slowly. Thus, during the first and second general elections in 1995 and 2000, only few CSOs participated in voter education and monitored the elections. Due to a change in the political environment before the May 2005 election, “[a] broad range of civil society organizations conducted(ing) civic education and organized(ing) a series of widely-discussed live televised debates” resulting in that both, national and international CSOs, played an active role in the electoral process by “organizing public forums, conducting voter education training, and deploying domestic observers.”
This led, for the first time in the recent history of Ethiopia, to a high voter turnout and to electoral victories by the opposition parties. The government saw itself threatened by those civil society organisations. In the post-election period then, the government accused most CSOs of having links to the opposition parties and harassed and arrested human right activists and started to shrink the civic space.
The Ethiopian Civil Society Proclamation of 2009 restricted significantly the civil society sector, especially those organizations working on politically sensitive issues, human rights, and rule of law including activities such as gender, democracy and children’s rights. While advocacy organizations were relatively active before the implementation of the law, hardly any organization was able to keep their focus on democracy and human rights after the implementation of the 2009 proclamation. Most of the affected CSOs provided legal aid, training and civic education, monitored human rights violations and elections, and advocated for the rights of specific Ethiopian groups.[i] Since the laws made it very difficult to raise funds from both international and local sources, many of these CSOs were forced to either close their branch or limit, re-brand or switch their activities.
Before the next election in 2010, the Ethiopian government issued several restrictive laws[ii], such as the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation No. 590/2008, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 and the Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 621/2009. Furthermore, the electoral law was amended in 2007 restricting the activities of CSOs in the electoral process. It stated that those CSOs willing to undertake election monitoring or voter education should now obtain a specific license.[iii]
Fast forward to 2018, after three years of continuous violent demonstration and unexpected resignation of Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn on 15 February 2018, Dr. Abiy Ahmed was appointed as new Prime Minister on 2 April 2018. He has promised a democratic transformation process including free and fair elections in 2020 while apologizing for the human right abuse committed by the previous government. Consequently, he released thousands of political prisoners, lifted the terrorist designation of three major opposition parties, and adopted a new Civil Society Proclamation.
Ethiopia’s old and new Civil Society Proclamation
a. The old Proclamation
According to the Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 621/2009 (hereinafter called CSP/2009), there are three types of CSOs, namely (1) Ethiopian Charities or Societies, (2) Ethiopian Resident Charities or Societies, and (3) Foreign Charities. This designation is based on where the organization was established, its source of income, its composition of membership and its membership residential status.[iv] Article 2 of CSP/2009 outlines that CSOs formed according to the Ethiopian law, whose members are all Ethiopians, generate income from Ethiopia and are wholly controlled by Ethiopians, are classified as Ethiopian Charities or Societies. These organizations cannot use more than 10% of their resources from foreign sources/funds. Ethiopian Resident Charities or Societies are Ethiopian charities or societies that use more than 10% of their resources from foreign sources/funds. Foreign Charities are charities formed under the laws of foreign countries, or whose membership includes foreigners, or foreigners control the organization, or the organization uses funds from foreign sources. According to the CSP/2009, only Ethiopian charities or societies are allowed to participate in activities that include the advancement of human and democratic rights, the promotion of equality of nations, nationalities, people, gender and religion, the promotion of the rights of adults and children with disabilities, the promotion of conflict resolution or reconciliation, and the promotion of the efficiency of justice and law enforcement services.[v] Hence, those CSOs which use more than 10 percent of their foreign fund are forbidden to participate in the aforementioned activities. In addition, several other administrative burdens were imposed on CSOs. When CSOs want to raise funds, they (1) have to have permission from the Charities and Societies Agency; (2) cannot solicit money and property that exceeds 50,000 birr (around 3000 USD, 1 USD = 16.33 Birr on 31/10/2010) before registration; and (3) can only engage in income generating activities that are incidental to the achievement of their purposes.[vi]
Moreover, the CSP/2009 requires all CSOs to register. For foreign CSOs it further requires them to obtain a letter of recommendation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia before applying for registration.[vii] Furthermore, the authority of the Agency is almost unlimited to decline their request for registration, to revoke licenses and oversee the activities of CSOs.[viii]
b. The new Proclamation
The new Organizations of Civil Societies Proclamation No. 1113/2019 (hereinafter called CSP/2019) changed most of the restrictive rules of the CSP/2009. It divides CSOs only into two groups, namely local and foreign. Local CSOs are organizations formed according to Ethiopian laws, either by Ethiopians or foreigners who reside in Ethiopia or both. Foreign CSOs are organization formed according to the laws of another country and registered to operate in Ethiopia. The CSP/2019 abolished the 10% rule on funding enabling CSOs to raise funds from any lawful source without requesting approval from the Agency. Furthermore, it explicitly provides the right for all organizations to engage in any lawful activity to accomplish their objectives. The law calls on all CSOs to contribute to the democratization process and promoting the rights of their members. However, foreign organizations and indigenous organizations established by foreign citizens who reside in Ethiopia, may not lobby or influence political parties, nor may they engage in voter education or electoral observation, unless otherwise allowed by other law. [ix]
Although the new CSP/2019 renamed the Agency as Civil Society Organizations Agency, it still oversees the registration and reporting of CSOs. However, its power has been significantly limited. The new law sets time limits on the administrative duties of the Agency and CSOs can now challenge the decisions of the Agency, which was not allowed under the CSP/2009.
The new Proclamation and the upcoming 2020 general election
The new proclamation is an important step towards transformation of policies and actions initiated by the newly appointed Prime Minster who has promised a democratic transformation of the country. The CSP/2019 opens the space for CSOs to carry out a vital role, particularly in the country’s democratization process and human rights promotion, by lifting the crippling rules of the previous law. But to resuscitate CSOs to make a meaningful contribution for the 2020 election as much as the 2005 election requires more actions than adopting a new proclamation. Because the new proclamation was just adopted in March 2019, one year before the 2020 election, it might be that the CSO sector is not yet fully re-established, re-adjusted and fully operational. Especially, as for the last ten years the CSP/2009 has canned CSOs which worked on democracy and human rights until there were no CSOs in this sector left. Re-establishing such active CSOs and making meaningful contribution takes some time.
[ii]See Ibid; Hailegebriel, Debebe. “Ethiopia.” International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law 12, no. 3 (2010): 18–27; ICNL (International Center for Not-for-Profit Law). “Civic Freedom Monitor: Ethiopia.” Accessed May 10, 2017. http://www.icnl.org/research/monitor/ethiopia.html.
[iii] Electoral Law of Ethiopia Amendment Proclamation No.532/2007: Articles 78-91.
[iv] Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 621/2009: Article 2.
[v] Ibid: Article 14 (j).
[vi] Ibid: Articles 98-101, Article 65 (3) and Article 103.
[vii] Ibid: Article 68 and 69.
[viii] Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 621/2009: Articles 4 to 6 and 84 to 94.
[ix] The paragraph refers to the following articles of the Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 1113/2019: The need of foreign CSO Article 2 (2-3); CSOs to contribute to democratization process Article 62 (8); Foreign organizations and indigenous organizations may not engage in voter education or electoral observation Article 62 (5).