Despite frequent statements about its commitment to the enforcement of human rights standards in the country, the Ethiopian government's actual practices, detailed in Ethiopia: The Curtailment of Rights released by Human Rights Watch today, significantly deviate from these principles.
The government daily violates the civil and political rights of Ethiopian citizens by denying them the basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and association. The practices of arbitrary arrest, ill-treatment and torture in detention continue under the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which took power in May 1991 after defeating the Derg military dictatorship. Commenting on the announced visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Ethiopia today, Peter Takirambudde, the Executive Director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch said "we are reminding the United States that it is time to insist that Ethiopia meets its international human rights obligations. We call on the U.S. government to use its economic and strategic support for the country to induce and to facilitate human rights improvements."
With the legacy of the Derg behind it, the EPRDF proclaimed, as it instituted a four-year transitional period (1991-1995), its commitment to democratization and respect for the rule of law and pledged to establish human rights in the country. The transitional legislature ratified the major international human rights treaties. The constitution of today's Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia offers detailed basic human rights guarantees and provides for the incorporation into domestic laws of all the human rights treaties to which Ethiopia is party. New laws were enacted that guarantee the respect of human rights and civil liberties, institute the independence of the judiciary and the press, and provide for multipartyism and free universal suffrage, theoretically allowing the convening of competitive elections for the first time in the country's history.
Upon taking power in 1991, the EPRDF actively promoted a policy of ethnic federalism that influenced the subsequent constitutional, political, and administrative restructuring of the country. At the same time, it moved effectively to dominate the political system by favoring regional parties affiliated with it and clamping down on opposition and civil society groups.
The emerging contours of the political scene generated a particular set of human rights problems. Among the major human rights concerns:
Arbitrary Arrest and Torture
In remote regions, where government forces sporadically confronted armed dissident groups pressing for self determination on ethnic grounds, village shakedowns followed armed encounters or were used to preempt such encounters. As a result, hundreds of civilians were held in 1996 and 1997 under the authority of regional governments that suspected them of supporting armed opposition groups. As documented in Ethiopia: The Curtailment of Rights, this particular category of detainees faced the greatest risk of political killings, torture, and harsh and inhumane treatment, mainly at the hands of members of rural militias and other security forces that enforce law and order in remote rural areas. The absence of effective judicial oversight and the restriction of the work of most rights monitoring groups to the capital has meant most of those suffering abuse have had no recourse to legal remedy or to public denunciation.
Freedom of Expression
Other crackdowns severely curtailed the exercise of civil and political rights. The government attempted to bring a boisterous private press in line by the routine use of detention and imprisonment, and the imposition of prohibitive fines and bail amounts on journalists and editors.
Freedom of Association
The exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association was severely curtailed as activists loyal to the government targeted the two largest labor organizations in the country, the Ethiopian's Teachers' Association (ETA) and the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU), for control. Indicative of the predicament of ETA was that its president, Dr. Taye Wolde Semayat, started his second year in prison in May 1997, pending the conclusion of his trial on charges of heading an armed clandestine anti-government group. And on May 8, 1997, the police said they had shot and killed his successor at the head of ETA, Assefa Maru. The police statement claimed that the union official, who was also an executive committee member of the independent Ethiopian Human Rights Council, resisted arrest when police caught him preparing a terrorist act with other accomplices, and charged that he had replaced Dr. Taye as the leader of the clandestine armed group. Human Rights Watch interviews with eyewitnesses and photographic evidence, indicated that Assefa Maru was shot in the street on the way to his office.
According to the testimonies, at least four police teams took part in the assassination-style killing. Despite constitutional guarantees of the right to associate and organize, conflicting policy and administrative regulations have left non-governmental organizations in confusion and uncertainty. Newly founded organizations have found it difficult to register, some already existing organizations have been deregistered. The government continued to deny the veteran Ethiopian Human Rights Council legal status, contending that it was a political organization. In November 1997, seven Oromo elders and board members of the newly founded Human Rights League were detained and charged, in December, with terrorism and stockpiling of arms. The Ogaden Human Rights Committee, established in 1995, operates clandestinely and publishes its reports outside the country. Founded in 1992, the Oromo Ex-Prisoners For Human Rights similarly continued to function in a perilous clandestinity.
Freedom of Assembly
Under Ethiopian law, organizers of political meetings and demonstrations are required only to notify the competent government authorities prior to convening an event. The government managed, however, to restrict freedom of assembly by introducing a de facto permit system by virtue of which it stalled in acknowledging notifications and declared events which went ahead anyway as illegal, and therefore subject to dispersal and the arrest of participants. The government required some of those it arrested for taking part in political meetings and anti-government demonstrations, such as the 1997 demonstrations in Addis Ababa by shopkeepers and students, to submit written statements admitting their participation in an illegal activity, promising not to repeat the act, and praying for its pardon to be released. With threats of unspecified punishments hanging over their heads, the detained demonstrators all submitted to this humiliating ritual, which in addition implied that they would forfeit their constitutional right of peaceful assembly.
The Judicial System
In the face of an all-dominant party and powerful executive branch, victims of abuses had no redress. The restructuring of the judiciary, which had already suffered sweeping political purges in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Derg, has led to further pressure on its meager capacities, resulting in its near paralysis. Despite significant government efforts to reform the judiciary and ease its bottlenecks, judges who try to uphold the rule of law are frequently defeated by local officials who refuse to comply.
The Council of Peoples' Representatives initiated preparations in 1996 for the establishment of a human rights commission and ombudsman institution to fill in some of the gaps in the rights protection regime. By the end of 1997, no concrete steps in that direction had as yet been taken. The credibility of the new police force, which was meant to be established under civilian control, and made accountable before the law, suffered serious setbacks following the role of the police in some troubling political cases, particularly the killing in May 1997 of Assefa Maru. The "Derg Trials": In 1994, Human Rights Watch published "Reckoning Under the Law," detailing the process of accountability for officials of the Derg who committed atrocities. By the third quarter of 1997, the trials on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity of the seventy-two top-ranking Derg officials, including Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had fled to Zimbabwe shortly before the fall of Addis Ababa to the EPRDF, were still pending. As for the majority of those detained in relation to their suspected role during the Derg dictatorship, it was only in the first quarter of 1997 that the Special Prosecutor's Office announced they had been charged with criminal offences. The Office charged a total of 5,198 people, of whom 2,246 were already in detention, while 2,952 were charged in absentia. The vast majority of the defendants were charged with genocide and war crimes, and alternatively charged with aggravated homicide and wilful injury. Many of the defendants were in pre-trial detention for almost six years before they were brought to court.
The Role of the International Community
Ethiopian government officials frequently made statements that equated the expression of human rights concerns by representatives of the international community with interference in the internal affairs of the country. In any case, Ethiopia's partners in the international community gave mixed signals. They considered the country a model of economic reforms, and strategic ally both for the stabilization of the Horn of Africa region and for the diplomatic and military containment of perceived threats from the Islamist government of neighboring Sudan. This led to firm commitments of aid, and less resolve as to the conditioning of that aid on human rights improvements and sound governance benchmarks. Five years into this strategic alliance, concerned representatives of the international community still had no focal point to which they could bring their queries about abuses, and their appeals were rarely answered.
To the Ethiopian Government
Abide by the provisions of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, and the international human rights instruments to which Ethiopia is party, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, taking measures to this effect to:
- guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of all Ethiopians currently in detention, and immediately release those illegally detained;
- put an end to the practice of illegal or arbitrary detention as well as ill-treatment or torture of detainees and extrajudicial executions;
- guarantee the independence of the judiciary as required by the Ethiopian constitution and international law. Particularly, allocate sufficient financial resources to the judiciary, ensure the proper training of judges and others involved in the administration of justice, and hold police and other officials who interfere with the independence of the judiciary or refuse to obey court orders accountable before the law;
- respect freedom of association, by immediately lifting all legal and bureaucratic obstacles hindering the registration of existing and new nongovernmental organizations;
- cease the arbitrary detention and harassment of activists in nonviolent civil organizations. Stop all unlawful attacks on these organizations in the form of raids against their offices and projects, confiscation of their property, and freezing of their bank accounts;
- respect freedom of assembly, by lifting restrictions on political meetings and public demonstrations imposed by law and in practice, and halting arbitrary police actions to ban and disperse such meetings and demonstrations;
- respect freedom of expression, by lifting arbitrary restrictions on the print and public broadcasting media; and ceasing the detention and imprisonment of journalists for the expression of their opinions;
- respect academic freedom, by removing all restrictions on faculty and students' rights to associate and assemble;
- recognize the rights of Ethiopian human rights defenders to monitor, investigate, and report on human rights abuses in the country; and their rights to associate with others nationally and internationally in pursuit of the promotion of human rights and their protection in the country.
Establish a civilian, accountable police force, and strengthen the training of its personnel on issues of due process of law and on human rights standards and protections. To that effect:
- conduct an independent inquiry into the killing of Assefa Maru, executive committee member of both the Ethiopian Teachers Association and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, at the hands of police officers;
- investigate all other allegations of police abuse and improper treatment of detained persons; hold police officials responsible for such abuses accountable before the law.
- Establish a permanent human rights commission which is genuinely independent of the government, empowering it to:
- monitor and report on compliance with the human rights standards enshrined in the domestic legal system and the international instruments to which Ethiopia is party;
- establish its own priorities, which should include investigating reports of violations of the right to life and security of the person, and the right to freedom from torture and arbitrary arrest and detention;
- submit findings to judicial bodies so that perpetrators, including those within the security forces, are brought to justice;
- ensure that victims of abuses receive the adequate remedies that their cases call for, including protection for witnesses appearing before it and compensation for and rehabilitation of victims of abuses perpetrated by security forces.
To the International Community
Human Rights Watch urges members of the international community to press the government of Ethiopia to implement the above recommendations, in particular by using their economic support to the country to induce and to facilitate tangible human rights improvements. In particular:
- support efforts by organizations of civil society to promote human rights standards and monitor government's compliance;
- target assistance to the judiciary in order to improve its capacity and encourage its independence;
- encourage the establishment of a permanent independent human rights commission through the extension of financial and technical support.