New York — A major global initiative to encourage governments to better manage natural resource revenues should reject Ethiopia's bid for membership due to its harsh restrictions on civil society, Human Rights Watch said today.
The governing board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) is expected to make a decision about Ethiopia's candidacy at its next meeting, on March 18 and 19, 2014, in Oslo. EITI was founded in 2003 to strengthen governance by increasing transparency over revenues from the oil, gas, and mining industries. Itsmembers include countries, companies, and civil society representatives.
"The Ethiopian government has crushed activist groups and muzzled the media," said Lisa Misol, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Ethiopia's harsh repression of independent voices is utterly incompatible with this global effort to increase public oversight over government."
An earlier effort by Ethiopia to join the transparency group was rebuffed in 2010 out of concerns over a draconian 2009 law, still in effect, that sharply limits the activities of independent groups. Civil society representatives on EITI's board said that the law contravened the initiative's standards that make the free and active participation of independent organizations a requirement for a country to join.
The board deferred the decision, and suggested that it would not reconsider "until the Proclamation on Charities and Society Law is no longer in place."
Supporters of Ethiopia's membership, including Clare Short, the former United Kingdom minister who has been the group's chair since 2011, have recently pressed the board to overturn its 2010 decision.
On February 28, Short publicly endorsed Ethiopia's candidacy and criticized those who opposed its membership in an unprecedented open letter to civil society members of the board. She argued for loosening the group's rules and claimed that civil society in Ethiopia favored her position, even though nongovernmental organizations in the country cannot risk criticizing the government.
"It's absurd to suggest that Ethiopia deserves to join EITI because it has civil society support after the government has systematically intimidated groups into submission," Misol said. "EITI would become a reward for Ethiopia's effort to dismantle and silence civil society, providing a perverse incentive for other governments to do the same thing."
Ethiopia's repressive laws and policies have severely undermined independent activists and organizations in the country. Many organizations have been forced to greatly reduce their activities, others engage in self-censorship, and still others have had to close down. Several of the country's leading activists have fled the country due to threats.
New government-backed nongovernmental organizations have formed. One group that supports the government's drive to join EITI is a journalism union described as "government-controlled" by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The 2009 Proclamation on Charities and Society Law curtails the independence of nongovernmental organizations in Ethiopia, particularly groups that scrutinize the government.
It forbids national organizations from receiving more than 10 percent of their funds from foreign donors if they engage in human rights, advocacy, conflict resolution, or governance activities. The law also bars organizations from activities related to state policy, functioning, and accountability.
It established a regulatory body, the Charities and Societies Agency, with broad discretion to arbitrarily cancel organizations' registration and to levy fines and criminal charges against their personnel.
To join EITI, Ethiopia should be required to repeal or substantially amend the 2009 proclamation to eliminate problematic clauses that limit foreign funding, restrict certain types of activities, and grant far-reaching powers to a government agency to regulate activities of independent groups, Human Rights Watch said.
Additional preconditions should be tied to media freedom and respect for other fundamental rights necessary for open public debate on natural resource topics.
"Admitting Ethiopia into EITI now would send a terrible signal about the initiative's commitment to core principles about the participation of civil society," Misol said. "The board should insist on meaningful reforms in Ethiopia so that the government demonstrates its commitment to the initiative's principles and rules before it is admitted."