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Commentary: The Chief Commissioner’s visit and its fallout


Merhatsidk  Mekonnen  Abayneh, For Addis Standard

Bahir Dar, May 9, 2017 – Being one of the first 51 founding members of the United Nations, Ethiopia’s relation with the world body is as old as the latter’s formation way back in June 1945. In fact, it was one of the earliest ratifiers of the UN Charter which happened on November 13, 1945.

The country has immensely played a pivotal role ever since in the organization’s multiple functions such as peace-keeping operations. Far from active participation both in the General Assembly and the Security Council as well as the Specialized Agencies, Ethiopia has always volunteered to come forward in sending out its combat troops without hesitation to a dozen of UN-mandated peace operations and similar engagements whenever and wherever they were so required for the mission.

Due to its pioneering records, it is not unusual for Ethiopia to represent Africa at numerous global forums, including the United Nations itself. This position should not, in any way, be disputed, given the country’s age-long political independence as well as in fighting against and defeating European Colonialism alone, while the rest of the entire continent remained under exclusive domination by the outside forces.

Currently, Ethiopia occupies seats at both the UN Security and the Human Rights Councils until the end of 2018 and that of 2017, respectively.

Regardless of this unique and diversified involvement in the UN system, however, Ethiopia is hardly able to escape from being heavily and consistently criticized for its continued reluctance to allow independent human rights’ investigators into its territorial jurisdiction despite repeated calls and requests from across the world, including the UN Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights itself on various occasions.

It is in this broader context that I now wish to reflect on the recent visit to Addis Abeba of Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, Chief Commissioner of the Office of High Commission for Human Rights. I say ‘Addis Abeba’ because the Chief Commissioner publicly spoke of not being allowed to extend his visits further into the affected regions outside the capital.

Not a mere coincidence

First of all, it was not a mere coincidence that the Chief Commissioner visited Ethiopia not long after the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a state-sanctioned Human rights’ institutions, released a dismal investigation report on the human rights’ violations in connection with the violent protests in Oromia, Amhara and the Gedeo areas of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional States starting from June through September 2016 alone. EHRC’s report, which was submitted to the country’s House of People’s Representatives, admitted that 669 civilians and members of the security forces were killed as the result of the widespread public protests.

During his three-day-long working visit from 2 through 4 May 2017 “upon official invitation by the government”, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein hailed the country’s mounting achievements in areas of economic, social and cultural rights such as education and health as well as its commendable contributions in the UN peace-keeping missions. On the contrary, however, he did not shy away from openly and candidly urging authorities in Ethiopia to open up the political space for dissenting and critical voices, observe the rule of law, allow independent investigation into the alleged human rights’ violations and harmonize domestic legislation with internationally-agreed norms and standards and, to the extent possible, live up to constitutional commitments and treaty -created obligations if the nation is to show further progress. Moreover, the commissioner fearlessly advised the authorities not to misuse the present Charities and Societies as well as Anti-Terrorism Proclamations in force for the wicked purpose of silencing political opponents by any means.

With regard to EHRC’s report, Commissioner Al Hussein commended the measure as a positive move. However, he stirred clear of earlier claims by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn that the UN Human Rights commission “accepted and gave recognition for EHRC’s report” when he unequivocally stated that his office was “unable to corroborate or confirm” EHRC’s findings.  He also made no secret that the legitimacy and credibility of EHRC’s findings were still under question mark as it can no longer be cross-checked by an independent and impartial investigation mechanism. To that effect, the Chief Commissioner still insists that his experts be permitted into the country’s regions affected by the unrest and covered by the report and recommendations of the national human rights institution. So far, his pleas are to no avail.

But at what cost?

Does it really sound fair and reasonable for a seating member state of the Human Rights Council to vehemently deny the same body access to whatever information it may have, so long as that was badly required to either “confirm” or “corroborate” the state sectioned rights organization’s findings on human rights violations? Why should Ethiopia worry so much and be that sensitive about the issue of state sovereignty when it comes to the idea of independent human rights investigation in the first place? What does the concept of state sovereignty has to do with allowing an outside body to conduct independent investigations and provide reports to the international community?

In order to understand these questions, one has to look into the origination and operational mechanics of the UN System itself. According to the UN General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/60/251), which had introduced the Human Rights Council, (otherwise known as the UNHRC), on March 15, 2006, the election of any country for a three-year term of office into the Council by the Assembly presupposes the candidate’s track record in the area of “promotion and protection of human rights as well as its voluntary pledges and commitments made thereto”. While proposing and electing new members of the Human Rights Council, Member States should take into account the valuable contribution of such candidates for the overall promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms back home. In the words of the said resolution under consideration, “states qualified for an election into the Council’s membership are expected to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights”.

Ethiopia should, indeed, be proud of its successful admission into the UN Human Rights Council on the part of the UN General Assembly. Undoubtedly, however, such an admission equally entails a corresponding duty on Ethiopia not to shy away when approached for cooperation during trying times and painful experiences, which the country went through in the last two years. It is now long overdue that the classical dictum of ‘non-interference in the domestic jurisdiction’ of a sovereign state, as laid down under Art. 2. Sub-Art. (7) of the UN Charter, has gradually lost its relevance in the contemporary international human rights’ protection law.

As a matter of fact, an independent and constructive engagement of a state which is a party to a dozen other international human rights’ treaties such as Ethiopia has nothing to do with encroaching upon its position as a sovereign entity in the system of international relations.

I fail to comprehend what Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had to tell the world when he told the BBC on April 18, 2017 that the country’s sovereignty would be jeopardized should he allow an outside mechanism to conduct the alternative investigation of the human rights’ complaints.

There appears no strong justification for the country to keep on turning down sustained requests for cooperation on this front from the UN system, which cannot, in any way, be equated with other advocacy groups such as the Human Rights’ Watch and Amnesty International, often demonized by the government for their alleged inflated and biased reports and recommendations.

Ed’s Note: Merhatsidk Mekonnen Abayneh is a senior expert in law as well as peace and security studies. Currently, he is serving in the capacity of a Chief Legal Advisor to the President of the Amhara National Regional State, Ethiopia. He can be reached at:

Cover photo caption:  High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (center) addresses a press conference in Addis Abeba, the capital of Ethiopia.

Photo: UN/Ahunna Eziakonwa

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