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Human Rights Day in Ethiopia: Make it count, please

The ever hopeful UN kept on observing, every 10th of December, what it calls “Human Rights Day.” Last December, the day was commemorated around the world (almost) with one motto: Human Rights 365. This year will mark half a century since the world agreed to give effect to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. Butwith less than a year to go the UN frets that “on any scale, 2014 will be remembered as a year of daunting human rights challenges.” UN’s task of ensuring these wish lists in countries which are signatories to the declarations is indeed daunting and monumental at the same time.

It’s daunting because “in places where only recently there had been progress in achieving human rights, there has now been retreat” the UN says. It’s monumental because this magazine believes many countries in the world care no more about these jargons all together; out of these countries the report card in some, including Ethiopia, shows not only persistent abuses of rights but a disturbing regress.

Ethiopia exhibited all signs for the year 2014 to be remembered as a year of ‘daunting human right challenges.’ A two year anti-state intervention protest by the Muslims in the capital Addis Abeba and many major towns around the country continued facing police brutalities and an endless trial against Muslim members of a committee formed to seek for solutions. In April last year what began as a simple students’ protest rally in many universities located in Oromia, a regional state home to the largest ethnic group in the country, the Oromo, ended up with abysmal bloodletting and arbitrary arrests of hundreds of Oromo students. The students’ demand was simple: they were protesting against a master plan by the Addis Abeba city administration that wants to annex peripheral towns surrounding Addis Abeba but belonging to the Oromia regional state. The heavy-handed crackdown primarily orchestrated by the regional state police (supported by the federal police) resulted in the killings, by some accounts, of more than 40 students and the arrest and mysterious disappearance of hundreds of students. The state’s account put the number to less than ten and just a few dozens of arrests. No legal procedure to try the perpetrators has been established so far. End of April also saw a major crackdown against six bloggers belonging to the zone9 blog collective and three journalists, whose trial has continued to show a series of court drama.


Ethiopians in and outside of the country, both supporters and critics of the current political system, were still reeling from the general shock at the outcome of the students’ killing and arrest, as well as the arrest of the six bloggers and three journalists when a report by the UK based Amnesty International revealed a shocking detail on the mass and arbitrary arrest and prison abuse suffered by thousands of Oromo people inside the country’s prison cells. This report was followed by yet another report by the International Centre for Prison Studies that placed the country second after South Africa for being host to the largest numbers of people incarcerated behind bars.

The fact that many of the people targeted by the police are known to have been fierce critics of the system comes as an alarming coincidence.

Failing, not protecting
While the UN is preparing to commemorate the 50th year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination this year, Ethiopia has celebrated the 20th year anniversary of the adoption of the current constitution. Beyond the celebrations of this anniversary however, the need to question whether there are any reasons for the celebrations has never been more urgent than it is now.

There are two scenarios that partially explain why Ethiopia’s track record in handling human rights issues is pedaling backwards and why its20 year old constitution is failing the very people it is supposed to protect.

First, the country not only added some draconian laws and regulations but also keeps on implementing them mostly for political ends. The press law, societies and charities law and the anti-terrorism law are the major ones. Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism proclamation No. 652/2009 includes a very wide range of conducts which are far beyond the limits of what can reasonably be considered as terrorist activity; it remains the most controversial of the three.
To the disdain of many, Article 3 of this proclamation penalizes anyone who “causes serious damage to property, causes damage to natural resource, environment, historical or cultural heritages, causes serious interference or disruption of any public service,” the same way as anyone who “with the purpose of advancing political, religious or ideological cause by coercing the government, intimidating the public or section of the public or destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, or social institutions of the country.”

Ethiopia refused to revise this proclamation despite a global uproar against it; a 2011 UN special report on counter terrorism and human rights, for example, declared the concept of terrorism to be limited to acts committed with the intention of causing death or serious bodily injury, or the taking of hostages, and should not include crimes related to property damages.

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A wave of arrest that began in June 2012, three years after Ethiopia adopted the anti-terrorism law,saw hundreds of opposition party members, critics of the system, activists and journalists all detained by the police for one reason or another and charged with the anti-terrorism law; while a few have been convicted majority of them are still facing prosecutions.

Second, Ethiopia’s constitution has failed to secure its due respect from the country’s strong security apparatus and its politicians. The first worry critics and legal experts expressed about Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law was that it gives excessive power to the police. Take for example Article 19 – it entitles a police officer to detain a suspect without charges. It also introduced new evidentiary standards such as hearsay or “indirect evidence”,which can be admitted in a court of law without any limitation, according to article 23/2. Save for rare exceptions, Ethiopia’s criminal procedure disqualifies hearsay as inadmissible in courts but Article 23/1 of the anti-terrorism proclamation entertains intelligence reports prepared in relation to terrorism – even if these reports do not disclose the source or the method used to gather – as admissible in the court of law under terrorism charges.

Since the anti-terrorism proclamation came in to effect, in contrary to the constitution which stipulates the inadmissibility of proofs procured through coercion, the police have also been effectively using this provision to gather evidences obtained under duress including torture.

Where such circumstances thrive, it’s nearly impossible to contain the excesses of the police and that of the politicians. Constitutional failure also creates a problematic judiciary. Article 78(1) of the Ethiopian constitution declares the establishment of independent judiciary both at federal and regional levels and Art. 79(2) say judges are free from interference of any kind. But recent developments in Ethiopia exposed how the mighty force of politics has enfeebled the independence of the judiciary, which seemed to have lost its ability to grant citizens their day at the court of law and guarantee the right to speedy and public trial for those under the police custody.

In the backdrop of this Ethiopia has observed the 2014 Human Rights day with an improved motto: ‘Human Rights and Development 365.’ The motto appears it is not about the real meaning as it is about the government’s way of using its dazzling economic growth as a seductive distraction. It also comes at a time when the world is showing its readiness to hold its nose about rights issue inside Ethiopia and dance to the song that the country is now home to some of the fastest growing economies. After all, in a country where the politics is increasingly flouting the law and flouting the law has become the new normal, terms like protection of human dignity appear they matter no more. But that is wrong.

Other than quickly denouncing what it calls are mere claims, the government in Ethiopia has not been able to disprove (without reasonable doubt) reports by various organizations on rights’ violations inside the country; at least not yet. Even launching an independent inquiry, as it promised, on the recent killings of university students by the police is now looking bleaker as days go by.

Many are reasoning out the ever thinning tolerance for dissenting with the upcoming general election in May this year. But it should be known to all that no country in the world that says it is on a development path has so far been able to succeed in jailing and killing what it thinks are its problems away. With or without election around the corner running a country counts more if accompanied by human dignity than anything else. Ethiopia cannot pose as an exception.

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