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Security officials watch as demonstrators chant slogans while flashing the protest gesture during Irreecha, the thanksgiving festival of the Oromo people, in Bishoftu town, Oromia region, Ethiopia, on October 2, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

The following questions and answers are critical to understanding recent events in Ethiopia. Responses are written by Felix Horne, senior Ethiopia researcher at Human Rights Watch. The Human Rights Watch analysis of the situation is informed by 15 interviews with people who witnessed and lived through the events of October 2, 2016, as well as hundreds of other interviews with people caught up in violent government responses to protests across Ethiopia in the past year.  

  1. What is Irreecha and what happened on Sunday, October 2 during Irreecha?
  2. The government said 50 people died, while the opposition says 678. Why is there such a disparity in the numbers?
  3. Did security forces violate international laws or guidelines on the use of force in Irreecha?
  4. Why is an independent, international investigation important? Isn’t it the government’s responsibility to investigate?
  5. How has the government responded to the October 2 deaths in Bishoftu?
  6. What are protesters telling Human Rights Watch about the government response to the protests and about what they want now?
  7. What should the government be doing?
  8. What should Ethiopia’s key international allies, such as the US, UK and EU, do to help ensure improved human rights in Ethiopia?
  1. What is Irreecha and what happened on Sunday, October 2 during Irreecha?

Irreecha is the most important cultural festival to Ethiopia’s 40 million ethnic Oromos who gather to celebrate the end of the rainy season and welcome the harvest season. Millions gather each year at Bishoftu, 40 kilometers southeast of Addis Ababa.

This week, people spoke of increased tension after year-long protests in Oromia. There was an increased presence of armed security forces in Bishoftu compared to previous years.

The government attempted to have a more visible role in the festivities this year. The government and the Abba Gadaas, the council of Oromo traditional leaders, held extensive negotiations about the arrangements for the festival. At the festival, tensions within the massive crowd built when government officials appeared on stage and even more so when the current Abba Gadaas were not present on stage. Instead, a retired Abba Gadaa who is perceived to be closely aligned with the government took to the stage.

A military helicopter flying low overhead increased public concern about the government’s intentions, according to witnesses. Eventually, a man went on stage and led the crowd in anti-government chants. The crowd grew more restless, more people went on stage, and then security forces fired teargas and people heard gunshots.

The security forces have used live ammunition while confronting and attempting to disperse numerous public gatherings in Oromia for almost a year. As Human Rights Watch has  documented in many of those protests, teargas preceded live ammunition, so when the pattern seemed to be repeating itself at Irreecha, panic very quickly set in. People ran and fell into nearby ditches, while others were trampled in the ensuring chaos.

  1. The government said 50 people died, while the opposition says 678. Why is there such a disparity in the numbers?

The Ethiopian government makes it extremely difficult to investigate these types of incidents. The government limits independent media and restricts nongovernmental organizations, both domestic and international, so that currently no one has had the access, expertise or impartiality necessary to determine a precise, credible death toll. Making things worse, over the last few days, the government has restricted internet access, as it has done intermittently throughout the protests.

Based on the information from witnesses and hospital staff Human Rights Watch has spoken to, it is clear that the number of dead is much higher than government estimates. But without access to morgues and families who lost loved ones, and with many people unwilling to speak for fear of reprisals, it is impossible to come up with a credible total. Anecdotal reports from some hospital staff indicate high numbers of dead, but they are also under pressure to keep silent. There are numerous reports of medical staff not being permitted to speak, or being pressured to underreport deaths. They may also have had limited access to the bodies. During the last 12 months, Human Rights Watch has documented several arrests of medical staff for speaking out about killings and beatings by security forces, or in some cases for treating injured protesters.

All of this underscores the need for independent international investigation to document who died and how they died in Bishoftu on October 2.

  1. Did security forces violate international laws or guidelines on the use of force in Irreecha?

As a crowd-control method, teargas should be used only when strictly necessary as a proportionate response to quell violence. International guidelines, such as the United Nations Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, stipulate that the police are expected to use discretion in crowd control tactics to ensure a proportionate response to any threat of violence, and to avoid exacerbating the situation. Police should exercise restraint when using teargas in situations when its use could cause death or serious injury.

The witnesses all said the crowds were not violent, but they were clearly protesting against the government. Witnesses said they believed security forces fired guns into the crowd in addition to in the air but there is thus far no corroborated evidence of people hit by gunfire – but restrictions on access make it impossible to say for sure.

Based on the information Human Rights Watch has, it appears that the security forces’ use of force was disproportionate. To the extent that this force was used to disperse protests rather than in response to a perceived threat posed by the crowds, it may also have constituted a violation of the rights to free expression and assembly. The research leads us to the conclusion that the security forces’ disproportionate response triggered the stampede that resulted in so many deaths.

  1. Why is an independent, international investigation important? Isn’t it the government’s responsibility to investigate?

Yes, ideally the Ethiopian government should investigate. In the past, it has conducted investigations into alleged abuses by security forces that were neither impartial nor credible. Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission presented an oral report to parliament in June about the protests over the last year, saying the security force response was in all cases proportionate to a threat posed by demonstrators. That conclusion is contrary to the findings of Human Rights Watch and other independent groups that have looked into recent events. It is very clear that security forces consistently used live ammunition to disperse protests, killing hundreds of people. The government’s findings have further increased tensions, underscoring concerns protesters have voiced about lack of justice and accountability.

The lack of credibility of government investigations into the brutal crackdown and the scale of the crimes being committed are a compelling argument for the need for an independent, international investigation into those events and the events on October 2. Ethiopia’s international allies should be pushing hard for this.

Despite growing calls from the EU and from the UN’s most important human rights official, the government has strongly resisted the calls for international investigations. The government has a history of resisting outside scrutiny of its rights record. Access has been requested by 11 special procedures of the United Nations Human Rights Council since 2007, and all were refused except for the special rapporteur on Eritrea. On one hand the government wants to play a leadership role on the world stage, as seen in its membership on the Human Rights Council and the UN Security Council; but on the other it has resisted any international involvement in its own affairs.

  1. How has the government responded to the deaths in Bishoftu?

The government has been blaming “anti-peace elements” for the deaths, which continues to increase the people’s anger throughout Oromia. The government should instead allow an independent investigation and then acknowledge and ensure accountability for any abuses committed by its security forces. It should also demonstrate a commitment to respecting human rights by creating a forum to listen to protesters’ grievances in Oromia and other parts of Ethiopia. The protesters say that this is about rights denied: security force killings, arrests and torture, economic marginalization, and decades of grievances. Recent protests and the ensuing violence are not about social media trouble makers, or interference from neighboring Eritrea, as the government often contends when abuses come to light.

  1. What are protesters telling Human Rights Watch about the government response to the protests and about what they want now?

Over the last year, protesters have often told me that each killing by security forces increased their anger and determination. And the fear that was very present in Oromia and elsewhere in Ethiopia is dissipating. Some protesters say they feel they have nothing left to lose. I hear from one man each time he is released from detention. He has been arrested four times during the protests, including once when he was held in a military camp. He says he has never been charged with any crimes, has never seen a court room, and has been beaten each time he has been detained. He told me that in the military camp, soldiers stripped him down to his underwear, hung him upside down and whipped him. His brother was killed in a protest, his father arrested, and two of his closest friends have disappeared. I asked him why he keeps protesting despite the risks, and he said: “We have nothing else to lose. Better to go down standing up for our rights than end up dead, disappeared, or in jail.” I hear similar statements from many protesters, particularly the youth.

While the last year’s protests have been largely peaceful, more and more people are telling me that approach has run its course, that when you protest lawfully and peacefully and are met with bullets, arrests, and beatings, and little is said or done internationally, there is little incentive to continue that approach. Bekele Gerba, a staunch advocate for non-violence and deputy-chairman of the main registered opposition party in Oromia, is in detention and is on trial under the antiterrorism law. Treating those who advocate or engage in non-violent acts as criminals or terrorists sends a very dangerous message.

  1. What should the government be doing?

It seems clear that force will not suppress the protesters’ movement and has in fact emboldened it. When the government is willing to tolerate the free expression of dissent, allow peaceful assemblies, and engage in a genuine dialogue with protesters, it will help to end this crisis.

Most of the several hundred protesters interviewed in depth over the past year have a lengthy list of people close to them who have been arrested, killed, or disappeared, in addition to their own trauma. Older people have similar lists going back many years. Ethiopia needs accountability to rebuild trust with its citizens. The government has had numerous chances to make concessions and address protesters’ concerns. At those times when it has done so, as in January when it cancelled the master plan that ignited the initial protests, the action was taken far too late and done in a way that protesters did not consider credible.

In terms of immediate steps, the government should permit peaceful protests, ensure that no protests are met with excessive force, release those arbitrarily detained, and address grievances including ensuring respect for freedom of assembly, expression and association. This is what we have heard from the hundreds of protesters we have interviewed in the last year.

  1. What should Ethiopia’s key international allies, such as the US, UK and EU, do to help ensure improved human rights in Ethiopia?

For too long Ethiopia’s major international partners have not adequately raised serious concerns about the complete closure of political space in Ethiopia that has led to an inability to express dissent. At this point they need to take urgent action to ensure that the situation does not further spiral out of control. They should push for an independent international investigation. They should push for those arbitrarily detained to be released. And they should reiterate in the strongest way that lawful peaceful protests should be allowed to occur without the threat of bullets and mass arrests. They have leverage, and they should use it more effectively.

For more background:

On Ethiopia’s general human rights situation, see 2016 World Report on Ethiopia

On the human rights abuses during the Oromo protest, see “Such a Brutal Crackdown” (2016)

On Ethiopia’s repressive media environment, see “Journalism is Not a Crime” (2015)

On the history of abuses in Oromia, see “Suppressing Dissent, Human Rights Abuses and Political repression in Ethiopia’s Oromia Region” (2005) and Amnesty International’s 2014 report

On torture in Ethiopia, see “They Want a Confession”

On the need for an international investigation into the crackdowns, see “Ethiopia’s Bloody Crackdown: The Case for International Justice”

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