Op:Ed: The government’s approach to past human rights violations needs to be transparent

Wondwossen Demissie (PhD), For Addis Standard 

Addis Abeba, January 25/2019 – Ethiopia is in the process of opening up and widening the political space departing from the TPLF-dominated EPRDF-led government’s repressive approach. While the success of     democratic consolidation remains uncertain, Abiy’s government tend to    offer hope for significantly more democratic and rule of law based    governance. One of the disrepute of the previous regime that the current government has to deal with relates to gross human rights violations. This piece briefly examines the current government’s approach to addressing human rights violations, accusations against it and their validity, and proposes how to respond to the accusations.

Government’s Plea of Guilty

Both governmental and non-governmental human rights organizations had been accusing the pre-Abiy era’s EPRDF rule of gross human rights violations. The regime used to completely deny and dismiss such accusations as unfounded. Following the persistent public protest driven appointment of Abiy Ahmed as the Prime Minster of Ethiopia, the government has candidly admitted the human rights violations that took place since EPRDF came to power in 1991. In a historic question-and-answer session before the House of Peoples’ Representatives in June 2018, PM Abiy condemned the use of torture as a matter of routine means of investigation by security services, describing it as a form of state terrorism. In his sincere statement, the Prime Minster unequivocally declared that “torturing, putting people in dark rooms, mutilation of prisoners’ body parts is our act of terrorism.” On how widespread the crime was, the Prime Minster stated “these unconstitutional acts have been done in every kebele, woreda and zone. Not only at federal levels, but at every lower level.” Shortly after, the Attorney General followed suite when he reiterated the commission of massive human right abuses in the country. Accounts of survivors of torture and other human rights violations confirm the government’s statements.

The Government’s Approach Hitherto

Because human rights violations constitute a grave criminal act, a strict application of rule of law means prosecution of all those who are involved in these acts. However, that is not the only way to deal with the matter. Literature on transitional justice and the practice of States that passed through political transition suggest there are interests other than criminal justice that the new government has to take into consideration in designing a policy regarding how to deal with past human rights violations. Primarily this constitutes ensuring the success of the transition. Where there is a risk that pursuing criminal prosecution of past human rights violations might result in a backlash against the transition, non-punitive alternatives need to be considered instead. Another reason for pursuing non-punitive measures during transitions relate to existence of guilty masses. The number of persons involved in the human rights violations might make criminal prosecution challenging and call for non-punitive alternatives.

From the beginning Prime Minster Abiy’s approach focused on the non-punitive mechanisms of responding to the past human rights violations. In his inaugural speech, the Prime Minster stated “EPRDF has clearly apologized to the public. Saying we have made mistakes, blunders. … I have apologized and asked for forgiveness, ….  There were serious mistakes. The compassionate people have forgiven us. We need to seize this opportunity.” This is followed by his call for “Medemer” as a solution to the problem of ethnic compartmentalization. Furthermore, the motto “Break the wall, build a Bridge” during his visit to and discussion with the Ethiopian diaspora in North America and Europe confirms the Prime Minister’s belief in non-punitive peaceful alternatives. This approach is further strengthened by passing a legislation which establishes the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, mandated to carry out a non-punitive approach to responding to human rights violations during the previous regime.  The Prime Minister’s reference to apology, love, and forgiveness has been so consistent that the Human Rights Watch went as far as questioning the Prime Minister’s commitment to bringing human rights violators to justice.

Later on the government, alongside the non-punitive approach, started to take legal measures against those who are suspected to have been involved in human rights violations. The government continues to hunt down other suspects including the ex-spy chief. That said, the government has made it clear that not all involved in the crime of violation of human rights would be prosecuted. Abiy Ahmed told lawmakers that “the prison facilities that we have here in Ethiopia are not sufficient enough to handle the vast number of criminals … we have chosen to focus on major cases and leave the rest for a reconciliation commission that is in the making.”

Assessing the Government’s Approach

Ten months on, this much is known. It is not clear which crime and which of those involved in these crimes will be subjected to the punitive approach and which others are to be diverted to the Peace and Reconciliation Commission. This gap has opened floodgates for opponents of the ongoing reform to denounce the government’s approach as discriminatory and biased. TPLF leaders and some TPLF sympathizers have been accusing the federal government for targeting the party and the people that they claim it represents.   Those who are under investigation in connection with their suspected involvement in the human rights violation have expressed similar objection to the government’s approach. They told the court that their prosecution is motivated by their ethnic background as others have not been investigated despite their key role in the alleged criminal conduct.  For a similar reason, the regional government of Tigray has refused to hand over the former intelligence-chief, whom the US congressman  described as “a criminal and ruthless human rights violator, who needed to be sanctioned”,  despite the arrest warrant issued by the concerned federal court.

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True, there are figures who have not been questioned so far despite that they held senior government positions, including the highest executive powers of the Federal Government, by virtue of which they were supposed to ensure the implementation of the Constitution, when the allegedly systemic and widespread human rights violations took place. In fact, some of them are still in senior government positions. This, indeed, appears a prima facie evidence for the validity of the accusation relating to lack of even-handedness in the process.

On the other hand, the government has discretion to depart from a strict application of criminal laws of the country and set aside criminal proceedings against suspected individuals.  Relevant laws  and policies recognize the government’s discretion not to institute criminal prosecution where the interest of the public so demands. It follows that, government officials of the kind referred above have not been subjected to criminal proceedings does not necessarily mean that the government has been discriminatory in its approach to addressing human rights violations in the past. There might be good reasons for its stance.  However, not much is known why the officials, who are implicated by virtue of the government positions they held when human rights abuses took place, are not investigated. 

A chance to the public

It is important that the government explicitly and publicly states its approach to addressing past human rights violations. The government has to make it clear why the persons described above are not subjected to criminal investigation- is it because they have provided significant contribution to the reform and accepted the call for medemer so much so that not instituting a criminal proceeding against them is in the interest of the public? Is it because they only had nominal power despite the seniority of the positions they had? Is it because there is no evidence indicating their involvement in human rights violations? Will their case be referred to the Peace and Reconciliation Commission? Or what?

As noted above, the government’s approach has an appearance of partiality and there are signs that such appearance has created discord;it is also creating potential exploitation for political end and, perhaps, being successful in confusing, if not persuading, at least a section of the public. The government might have, both in fact and in law, followed a principled approach in making its decision as to whom to prosecute and not to. However, to the extent the approach is not communicated to the public, it will continue to be subject to different interpretations. This calls for the government to articulate and publicize its approach regarding the application of punitive and non-punitive mechanisms of responding to human rights abuses.  By so doing, the government will give an opportunity for the public to judge if the accusations are valid or just unfounded defamation. AS

Editor’s Note: Wondwossen Demissie (PhD) teaches Addis Abeba University Law School. He can be reached at wondwossend@yahoo.com 

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