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State of Emergency Ends in Ethiopia

Government Should Use Reform, Not Force, to Avoid More Protests

Ethiopian Members of Parliament raise their hands in favour of lifting the state of emergency, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, August 4, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Ethiopia’s parliament has just lifted the country’s 10-month-long state of emergency. The government’s emergency powers brought mass detentions, politically motivated criminal charges, and numerous restrictions on people’s movement and communication. While the end is welcome news, thousands remain in detention without charge, none of the protesters’ underlying grievances have been addressed, and politically motivated trials of key opposition leaders, artists, journalists, and others continue.

In October 2016, at the beginning of the state of emergency, the government promised “deep reform” in response to the year-long protests that left over 1000 people dead. The reforms included tackling corruption, cabinet reshuffles, and a dialogue with what was left of opposition political parties. The government also pledged youth job creation and good governance. But these are not the fundamental issues that protesters raised during the hundreds of rallies between November 2015 and October 2016. The government has largely redefined protester grievances in its own terms, ignoring more fundamental demands to open up political space, allow dissent, and tolerate different perspectives that are critical in such a large and ethnically diverse country. It has also failed to conduct even a remotely credible investigation into security force abuses since the protests began.

Impunity for security forces remains a major concern. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission’s two investigations into the protests and a recent speech by their chair – which both echoed the government’s misleading allegations of the extent of violence by protesters and its inaccurate portrayal of protester grievances – underscore longstanding concerns over the commission’s independence. Accountability matters – not only for corruption, but for security force abuses. Ethiopia’s repeated unwillingness to meaningfully investigate and hold its security forces to account is why Human Rights Watch and others have long argued that an international investigation is crucial.

Even though it was abusive and overly broad, Ethiopia’s state of emergency gave the government a window to address citizens’ grievances without the shadow of imminent protests. But the government missed that opportunity. Suppressing grievances through brutal force is more likely to provoke instability than to ensure Ethiopia’s long-term stability.

The government should release those arbitrarily detained or subject to politically motivated charges, including opposition politicians like Dr. Merera Gudina, Oromo Federalist Congress chairman. Many protesters, including those who were held in Ethiopia’s “rehabilitation camps” during the state of emergency, have told me that without such efforts and meaningful reform, it is just a matter of time before they start protesting again. 

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