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Human Rights Defenders Under Siege in Ethiopia

New law threatens groups advocating human rights and democratic governance

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December 3, 2009 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- A newly issued report finds that a law set to go into effect in January 2010 will effectively silence human rights organizations and groups advocating democratic governance in Ethiopia. The report is the work of Northwestern University School of Law's Center for International Human Rights.

Titled "Sounding the Horn: Ethiopia's Civil Society Law Threatens Human Rights Defenders," it concludes that Ethiopia's Civil Society Law (or CSO law) not only violates Ethiopia's human rights obligations but also the Ethiopian Constitution. The report can be found online at http://www.law.northwestern.edu/humanrights/.

"It's essential that the international community support Ethiopian citizens by speaking out against the CSO law," said Sandra Babcock, clinical professor of law at Northwestern School of Law and clinical director of its Center for International Human Rights. "The Ethiopian government has harassed organizations and individuals advocating human rights and democratic governance for decades, and its attitude toward them in recent years has hardened."

Part of Northwestern School of Law's Bluhm Legal Clinic, the Center for International Human Rights not only offers students classroom courses but also clinical human rights experiences. Since 2007, Babcock and her clinic students have traveled to Malawi five times. There they assisted pre-trial detainees held without access to lawyers in life-threatening and overcrowded prisons. As a result of their work, 25 prisoners have been released to date. 

Upon implementation on Jan. 6, 2010, the Ethiopian CSO law would forbid all foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from engaging in activities pertaining to human rights, women's rights, children's rights, disability rights, citizenship rights, conflict resolution or democratic governments.

Even local NGOs receiving more than 10 percent of funding from foreign sources will be considered "foreign" under the new law. According to the report, the new CSO law will force the vast majority of domestic human rights NGOS in Ethiopia to either close or drastically alter the scope of their work.

The director of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers' Association (EWLA) recently fled the country after the government retaliated against EWLA for the association's description of the government's human rights record.

According to the Northwestern report, the CSO law also will violate Ethiopians' right to freedom of association and citizens' rights to freedom of expression.

For further information, contact Sandra Babcock at s-babcock@law.northwestern.edu or Nicolas Martinez at n-martinez@law.northwestern.edu or (312) 503-8579.