Today, the Ethiopian government passed a controversial bill that puts serious restrictions on the ability of foreign and local aid agencies in Ethiopia to work on a number of key issues, such as human rights, criminal justice and conflict resolution and reconciliation. The law is so restrictive that close observers such as Human Rights Watch’s Chris Albin-Lackey predicted before it was passed that it “will render the activities of most international and local human rights organizations illegal” – an ominous trend given Ethiopia’s own internal problems, its controversial military role in Somalia and lingering tensions with Eritrea. Another insider warned privately that the bill threatens the very existence of civil society in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian parliament’s decision comes as no surprise. The Ethiopian government has conducted a major crackdown on human rights (and has been accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the form of collective punishment after rebel attacks on an oil installation in 2007.) Ethiopia is a major recipient of U.S. foreign aid and a trusted partner in U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa. The U.S. government’s quiet pressure on Ethiopia to reform its abusive tendencies has not worked to date, and this is yet another problem the Obama Administration will inherit in the region.