Human Rights Watch Letter
October 17, 2001

The Prime Minister
Mr. Meles Zenawi
The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Your Excellency,

We are writing to express our deep concern regarding the recent suspension from operation of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), a leading local nongovernmental women's rights organization. We call for an immediate and unconditional reinstatement of EWLA.

On August 23, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, the only organization actively engaged in advocacy work on women's human rights in Ethiopia, publicly criticized the Ministry of Justice for its failure to effectively investigate, arrest and prosecute the known perpetrator in an ongoing case of domestic violence.

On August 25, the Minister of Justice alleged that EWLA was suspended for "engaging in activities different from those it was mandated by law" without substantiating its allegations. We understand that the EWLA has met all legal requirements for nongovernmental organizations in Ethiopia. Further the Minister of Justice unilaterally announced the suspension of the organization through local television, without making efforts to inform the staff of EWLA and hear their response. The Minister of Justice's decisions in this respect are arbitrary and contrary to the requirements of Ethiopian law.

Human Rights Watch is even more concerned that this is a direct attack on EWLA's rights to freedom of expression and association. Ethiopia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in June 1993 and is bound to respect the rights enumerated in it.

Article 19 of the ICCPR provides in part that:

1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.

International law allows for restrictions of the right but only on limited grounds. None of these grounds were compromised by the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association's publicly criticizing the government for its failure to protect women victims of domestic violence. Therefore, the ministerial order suspending EWLA from future operations has no legal basis.

Twenty-four-year-old Hermela Wosenyeler has repeatedly reported being harassed and assaulted to the police over a period of eight years. Even as the police have refused to take her reports seriously, the threat to her and her family has escalated. In 2000, the assailant shot and severely wounded Ms. Wosenyeler. On two separate occasions, the assailant attacked her two sisters with a machete causing serious injuries to them. Despite receiving several complaints from Ms. Wosenyeler and her family, the police have failed to take any action. Instead, the assailant is free and continues to threaten and harass the Wosenyeler family.

The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association sought to assist Ms. Wosenyeler by urging the Ministry of Justice to take the necessary steps to ensure that her attacker was brought to justice. After failing to obtain a positive response from the Minister of Justice regarding the Wosenyeler case, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association publicly criticized the government's inaction in a statement made by the organization to the local press on August 23. The Minister of Justice responded to EWLA's protests by issuing a ministerial order suspending the organization from operation two days later. Human Rights Watch is concerned that the ban of EWLA is a thinly veiled attempt to silence them for criticizing the government. In the weeks since August 25, when the government suspended the association and froze its bank accounts, the government failed to justify the ban.

The situation of women in Ethiopia is difficult. Women bear the brunt of familial responsibilities, including feeding their families even as they live in conditions of extreme poverty. The majority of women are unemployed and illiterate. Despite the existence of a constitutional prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sex in Ethiopia, in practice, Ethiopian women suffer from severe discrimination and are the victims of physical and sexual violence.

Since its establishment in 1995, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association has worked to defend the rights of women in Ethiopia. EWLA has won the respect of civil society in Ethiopia for its record of providing timely and effective legal assistance to women victims of discrimination and abuse, particularly poor women who cannot afford to meet the costs of hiring lawyers to represent their cases. Through its advocacy initiatives in 2000, EWLA successfully influenced reform of the Ethiopian Family Law Code whose discriminatory clauses had for many years relegated women's status in the family subordinate to that of men. EWLA has also worked to raise gender awareness by educating women and men about the rights of women. Prior to its suspension, EWLA had established branch offices in different regions outside Addis Ababa where it is headquartered, with the aim of reaching many rural women. At the beginning of 2001, EWLA initiated a campaign to amend the Penal Code to ensure that women's sexual and reproductive rights are protected.

The Ethiopian government has failed to implement the laws that protect women from discrimination and abuse, particularly sexual and domestic violence. In February 2001, EWLA organized a massive protest against domestic violence in which hundreds of women marched to the Prime Minister's office demanding more police protection as well as prosecutions and punishment of the perpetrators of such violence. This was the first public act organized by EWLA to call upon the government to enforce its laws effectively to protect women victims of abuse.

Ethiopia has a long-standing record of targeting human rights organizations and activists, often accusing them of being partisan. The banning of nongovernmental human rights organizations is indefensible. Moreover, women typically face huge obstacles in seeking legal protection from domestic violence or in getting law enforcement authorities to take action against their batterers. Police and judicial authorities commonly dismiss domestic violence as a "private" matter rather than a crime that requires urgent state action. Authorities often blame women victims of violence when they speak about the violence, hence some victims remain silent. It is critical therefore to support women's rights organizations, such as the Ethiopia Women Lawyers Association, that seek to address violence against women and to educate society and law enforcement authorities about these crimes. In doing so, EWLA serves as a useful "voice of the voiceless" that should be left to speak out freely on behalf of abused women. In addition, human rights organizations must be free to monitor government actions and promote human rights. The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association was established to defend and promote the rights of women as provided for in the Ethiopian constitution.

We urge you to ensure that the Ethiopia Women Lawyers Association and other human rights organizations in Ethiopia enjoy their rights to pursue their objectives freely without any arbitrary interference by the government. Human Rights Watch urges you to end impunity for perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence against women. In addition, we urge you to take more active steps to combat violence against women in Ethiopia, including enacting specific legislation addressing domestic violence.

Sincerely,

LaShawn R. Jefferson
Executive Director
Women's Rights Division

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director
Africa Division

CC: The Minister of Justice
The Registrar
Minister of Justice's Office

The Ambassador
Ethiopian High Commission
Washington D.C.

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