Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Front (EPRDF) won 100% of the regional and parliamentary seats in 2015 in an environment that made real political competition virtually impossible. The government curtailed the ability of the political opposition to operate, restricted media, and ensured support through controlling access to government services and other resources. Six months after that election, widespread anti-government protests swept the country and sporadically continued for more than 3 years. Security forces killed hundreds, if not thousands, of protestors using unwarranted lethal force, and relied on arbitrary detention, torture and shutting down internet access to silence criticism of the government. Eventually, the protests, and criticism of the government’s abusive response to the protests, compelled the government to make changes. A new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, came to power in April. Since taking office he has admitted that security forces relied on torture, pledged to reform repressive laws and introduced numerous other reforms.
Ethiopia’s parliament lifted a ban on three opposition groups— Ginbot 7, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF)— in June 2018. The ban had been a basis for a decade-long crackdown on opposition groups, activists and journalists suspected for affiliation with the groups. Ethiopia also released many political prisoners, journalists and activists detained for many years.
While the new prime minister’s reform efforts are ongoing, the institutional and legal impediments for sustained political space, lack of accountability and impunity for torture and extrajudicial killings remain troubling. Thus far, the government has also failed to stop increased ethnic violence in various parts of the country, including the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa. The judiciary and national human rights institutions remain far from independent.
There has also been no visible effort to investigate or ensure accountability for serious crimes committed by the federal and regional security forces during the widespread protests or in other critical areas such as Somali regional state. There has been no accountability for forces involved in torture in different detention centers including the infamous Maekelawi in the capital, and the notorious detention center Jail Ogaden in Somali regional state. Members of the defense force involved in abuses of civilians remain in their posts with impunity.
Freedom of Expression and Association
During the 2014 UPR process, Ethiopia “noted” many recommendations to “amend repressive laws that affect free expression and the press” and supported recommendations to “take measures to ensure the increased freedom of expression of journalists and media workers” and to “fully protect members of opposition groups, political activists and journalists who are exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly from arbitrary detention”. Ethiopia also supported a recommendation to “repeal provisions of the legislation that can be used to criminalize the right to freedom of expression.” But no action to take these measures occurred until 2018.
After many years of pressure and public criticism, finally in 2018, Ethiopia released journalists who had been wrongfully detained, including prominent writers such as Eskinder Nega, Reyoot Alemu and Woubishet Taye. Ethiopia also dropped all pending charges against bloggers, journalists and diaspora-based media organizations that faced charges of crimes against the constitution.
Ethiopia officials have now indicated their intent to amend the repressive Anti-Terrorism proclamation that led to many journalists, bloggers and media professionals being charged with crimes. In the last four years more than 100 journalists went into exile or were arrested, forced to choose between self-censorship and harassment. Most journalists who have faced criminal charges were charged under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Hopefully, amending this law will meaningfully contribute to re-establishing a vibrant independent media, able to report freely on critical issues of governance, without fear of reprisals.
Despite this notable change, the government continues to block internet access and control some social media applications. In the past three years the government also blocked internet access of anti-government protests, national exams and ethnic conflicts. The Ethiopian government relies on the use of surveillance technology to monitor activists and political opposition members, in country and abroad. Except for unblocking some website and satellite television stations, Ethiopia did not show any sign of changing its abusive misuse of surveillance tools against citizens in 2018.
Under the 2014 UPR process Ethiopia “noted” a recommendation to “Take necessary measures to ensure respect for the right to freedom of association, including by repealing legislative and administrative restrictions on the activities of NGOs.” The government took no steps to do so until 2018. Spurred in part by international and domestic activists, the government has announced that the Charities and Societies Proclamation is currently under review. The current law bars research on human rights, governance, conflict resolution and advocacy on the rights of women, children, and people with disabilities by organizations that receive more than 10 percent of their funds from foreign sources.
- Urgently amend repressive laws, particularly the Anti-Terrorism law, the Media law, the Access to Information Law and the Charities and Societies Proclamation, and ensure the amendment process is transparent and allows for participation of all stakeholders;
- For the Charities and Societies Proclamation ensure amendments:
- Remove the provisions that label local groups as “foreign” if they receive significant funding from sources outside Ethiopia, and eliminate restrictions on the activities of these groups;
- remove the ban on non-Ethiopian groups carrying out work that touches on human rights, governance, advocacy and other key issues;
- ensure a right of appeal and unfettered access to the courts for all organizations and individuals subjected to adverse decisions under the law
- For the Charities and Societies Proclamation ensure amendments:
- Create a conducive environment for reestablishment of vibrant civil society organizations and the free press;
- Enact protections for the right to privacy to prevent abuse and arbitrary use of surveillance, national security, and law enforcement powers as guaranteed under international law applicable to Ethiopia.
Right to Peaceful Assembly
Unprecedented public demonstrations and protests particularly in Oromia and Amhara region were met with serious abuses by government forces from 2015 to early 2018. These mass demonstrations prompted the government to declare two states of emergency, one from October 2016 to July 2017 and a second from February 2018 to June 2018. The government’s directives contained provisions that were overly broad and vague, and many aspects were contrary to international human rights law.
Protests began in 2015, first in Oromia region over the government’s approach to urban development, but as the crackdown intensified, protester grievances focused on longstanding abuses and perceptions of ethnic discrimination. The protests expanded to Amhara region in 2016.
Additionally, in 2016 scores of people, possibly hundreds, died at the annual Irreecha cultural festival of ethnic Oromo people, following a stampede triggered by security forces’ use of teargas and discharge of firearms in response to an increasingly restive crowd.
Security forces used live ammunition to disperse largely peaceful protests, killing hundreds, and arresting tens of thousands. Many of those released reported torture in detention.
The declared state of emergency directives limited all constitutional rights including assembly and communications gave security forces the right to detain anyone without a warrant and hold them indefinitely. The declaration gave security forces standing permission to enter schools and universities to “arrest and stop mobs,” to search houses without a warrant, and to ban various forms of peaceful protest including stay-at-home strikes, closing shops, and blocking roads. Thousands of detainees were arrested for violation of the state of emergency and faced abusive treatment and/or forced political indoctrination by the ruling party.
From 2015 to 2018, at least one thousand people were killed while taking part in public protests and tens of thousands were detained and mistreated in different detention centers. In 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, stressed that an international investigation and accountability were needed into killings of protesters. Despite this call, no credible investigations have been conducted in any part of the country.
- Launch or invite independent investigation on the killings of protesters by security forces in the last three years in Oromia, Amhara and other regions and hold perpetrators of all ranks accountable;
- Reform and train police and security forces in line with local and international human rights standards and introduce accountability mechanism for violations
Arbitrary detention and mistreatment in custody
Ethiopia supported a recommendation to “continue efforts to ensure that clear, independent and effective complaints mechanisms are in place for individuals’ complaints concerning mistreatment by security and law enforcement authorities” during its 2014 UPR process. It also pledged to “fully protect members of opposition groups, political activists and journalists who are exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly from arbitrary detention”.
In practice, arbitrary detention and torture continue to be major problems in Ethiopia. Ethiopian security personnel, including plainclothes security and intelligence officials, federal police, special police, and military, have frequently tortured and otherwise ill-treated political detainees held in official and secret detention centers, to coerce confessions or the provision of information.
Many of those arrested since the 2015/2016 protests or during the 2017 state of emergency said they were tortured in detention, including in military camps. Several women alleged that security forces raped or sexually assaulted them while they were in detention.
Even though in April 2018 Ethiopia closed Maekelawi detention center, known for torture and mistreatment of political prisoners, detention centers administered by regional governments, some well-known for ill treatment, rape, torture, and lack of access to medical and legal aid remain open and there no plans for investigations into past abuses.
During the 2014 UPR session, Ethiopia also supported a recommendation to “respect the right to fair trial, notably by ensuring that legal procedures are respected.” Despite this, Ethiopia did not take any measure to improve the independence of the judiciary. Courts continue to implement political decisions of the executive branch and often ignore complaints of mistreatment in detention centers. There are serious due process concerns and questions about judicial independence in politically sensitive cases.
The government has not permitted the United Nation’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to investigate allegations, despite requests from the UN body in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2015 and “noted” all the recommendations given by states to positively engage with special mechanisms under the 2014 UPR process.
Abuses in Somali Regional State and lack of accountability
In Ethiopia’s Somali regional state citizens have long faced grave human rights abuses. The regional paramilitary force, the Liyu police, formed in 2008, have a murky legal mandate and in practice report to the regional president. Former regional president and former head of regional security, Abdi Mahmoud Omar, known as Abdi Illey, commanded the Liyu police for many years, particularly when Liyu police members were implicated in numerous alleged extrajudicial killings as well as torture, rape, and attacks on civilians accused of providing support to the then banned opposition group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Illey resigned in August 2018 was later taken into government custody; It is not clear what charges he may face. Ethiopian government failed investigate other former Liyu Police commanders and other senior regional officials but dismissed the most recent commander of Liyu police, Abdirahman Abdillahi Burale, also known as Abdirahman Labagole.
In the past few years, communities in Oromia reported frequent armed attacks on their homes by individuals believed to be members of the Liyu police. Human Rights Watch has on several occasions documented serious abuses, including extrajudicial executions, by the Liyu police since its establishment as a counterinsurgency force.
Somali region’s prison, Jail Ogaden, long administered by Liyu Police, was closed in September 2018. Former prisoners described to Human Rights Watch horrific abuses including torture, and rape, with no access to adequate medical care, family, lawyers, or even, at times, food. Officials stripped naked, beat prisoners, and forced them to perform humiliating acts in front of the entire prison population, as punishment and to instill shame and fear. Due to lack of health care, some prisoners died from their injuries while female prisoners gave birth inside their cell in unhygienic settings. Cells were often overcrowded. The new regional administration which closed the jail has not taken any measure to hold anyone accountable for the many abuses in Jail Ogaden.
Though Ethiopia acceded to the Convention Against Torture in 1994 and incorporated provisions into its constitution, torture and impunity for torture is widespread. The Ethiopian government does not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to federal prisons, police stations, or regional detention center such as “Jail Ogaden.” There is therefore no comprehensive independent monitoring of any detention facilities.
- Launch or invite the establishment of independent inquiries into serious violations of international humanitarian law and other serious abuses by Ethiopian military forces in Gambella in 2003 and 2004, in Somali Region in 2007-2008, and in Somalia in 2006-2008. Ensure that all personnel responsible for serious abuses are appropriately and fairly prosecuted. Senior officials implicated, including as a matter of command responsibility, should be prosecuted regardless of rank.
- Promptly order a transparent and impartial investigation into allegations of torture and ill-treatment in all federal and regional detention facilities, including facilities that have been closed, such as Maekelawi and Jail Ogaden, and ensure that all personnel implicated in serious abuses, regardless of rank, are appropriately disciplined or prosecuted. Publicly release a report detailing the progress and results of investigations, and any actions taken against individuals implicated in abuse.
- Take immediate steps to substantially reform the Liyu police, which could include clarifying command responsibilities and disbanding abusive units and defining a clear legal mandate for regional Liyu “special” police forces across Ethiopia.
- Ensure appropriate funding, oversight, and regulations to ensure Ethiopian prisons rapidly improve the conditions of detention and can meet the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
- Allow independent monitoring of all detention facilities and prisons by independent human rights monitors and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This should include the ability to conduct private, confidential meetings with prisoners.
- Offer a standing invitation to relevant United Nations and African Union human rights mechanisms including the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to visit Ethiopia.
- Discipline or prosecute as appropriate all government and military officials, regardless of position, implicated in human rights violations. Immediately put an end to arbitrary detentions and ensure that anyone arrested is promptly charged based on credible evidence or released immediately; those who have been charged should have the opportunity to defend themselves, with legal assistance, before an impartial court.
Recommendations concerning Ethiopia’s engagement with Human Rights Treaties and Cooperation with Human Rights Mechanisms:
- Invite the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Working Groups on Arbitrary Detention, Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Human Rights Defenders, Torture, Indigenous Peoples and the Right to Freedom to Freedom of Expression and Opinion, among others, to investigate and report on allegations of serious abuses in Ethiopia.
- Sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the Optional Protocols to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture.
- Ratify the Rome Statute and implement the statute in national legislation, including by incorporating provisions to cooperate promptly and fully with the International Criminal Court and to investigate and prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes before its national courts in accordance with international law.