Being educated can be a risky business in Ethiopia. Students and teachers, often among the most politically active elements of society, are frequent victims of human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and denial of freedom of association and expression. Ethiopian leaders since Haile Selassie have targeted the academic community; the current government's continuation of such abusive practices emphasizes the serious obstacles facing Ethiopia before basic rights are respected and enforced not only on university campuses but across the country.
This report focuses on three major abuses: repeated, unjustified use of lethal force by security forces to put down political protests by students; continued repression of the independent Ethiopian Teachers' Association, whose members include many of Ethiopia's most distinguished professors; and the stifling of independent thought through denial of university autonomy and government control of activities on university campuses. The government of Ethiopia, the ruling party of which has its roots in a student movement, has repeatedly failed to hold those responsible for these violations accountable.
The Ethiopian government has long enjoyed substantial international backing in spite of its human rights record. Eager to support Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, one of a generation of promising so-called new African leaders who came to power in the early 1990s in the wake of years of devastating armed conflict, the international community has been reluctant to criticize many of his government's human rights abuses. Foreign powers including the United States have said they preferred to support his efforts to bring peace. A senior State Department official told Human Rights Watch that, after the attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, the U.S. is even less inclined to demand respect for human rights in Ethiopia because it is completely dependent on the cooperation of this strategically located country, which borders Sudan and Somalia in the horn of Africa, as an ally in the U.S. war on terrorism. Ethiopian government security forces have taken advantage of this international climate to systematically repress students, teachers, civil society organizations, and journalists.
Time and again, government security agents have used lethal force to disperse student protesters with deadly consequences. In March 2002, high school students in towns across Oromia Regional State took to the streets to protest poor economic conditions and changes in education policy. In protest after protest, state police forces used live ammunition to disperse unarmed students, resulting in five officially acknowledged deaths. In the aftermath, hundreds of people were arbitrarily arrested and detained for an average of two months. Some were tortured. Students and teachers bore the brunt of the arrests. The government dismissed a number of state officials in the wake of the protests, but they were reportedly accused of encouraging demonstrators, not of using force against them. The state president told reporters that the police had no choice but to shoot because police lack non-lethal means of controlling the crowds and that they would continue to shoot students if the students continued to misbehave.
Less than a year earlier, federal police Special Forces killed some forty civilians and arrested thousands when students at Addis Ababa University (AAU) went on strike to demand academic freedom. The university administration, ministry of education, and police commission all said publicly that the police acted illegally when they entered the campus and fired at the students. A parliamentary committee held a public inquiry into the police actions, but the government has not released any information concerning any prosecution or disciplinary measures for those responsible. Most students have since returned to class, but they have been forced to drop their demands for academic freedom. The government-dominated administration continues to ban the student union and student newspaper.
The Oromia and AAU cases vividly demonstrate the Ethiopian government's lack of respect for the rights of students and civilians to demonstrate. The government has also failed to hold accountable security forces accused of killing unarmed protesters in other cases. In June 2002, weeks after Special Forces killed at least seventeen civilian protesters in the southern town of Awassa in one of the most egregious abuses in 2002, the government claimed to have removed local officials implicated in the events. But these officials were reportedly accused of having encouraged the demonstration in opposition to federal government policy-not of having killed unarmed protestors. Two months later, more officials were disciplined and some arrested, but diplomatic and NGO sources doubted the sincerity of the government's actions, citing that the infraction of those being punished was actually having encouraged civilians to demonstrate.
The government has also been ruthless in repressing labor organizations, especially of teachers and their union. Teachers, who represent one of the largest organized segments of Ethiopian society, have been critical of developments in education policy. To silence their criticism, the government has sought to destroy the independent Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA) for the past ten years by denying its members-the largest group of intellectuals in the country-the opportunity to meet to discuss anything, including education and politics. Tactics have included arresting many leaders and members and confiscating the association's property and bank accounts. An ETA leader was assassinated in 1997. The government even created a new union with the same name, but teachers have maintained that the "old" ETA is their professional association. During mandatory meetings of all teachers this July (meetings the government used to instruct them on how to produce good cadres), government representatives threatened that there will be consequences for teachers who continue to support the union.
Hundreds of individual teachers who have criticized government policy have also been victims of arrest, demotion, firing, and intimidation in recent years. Eight teachers were arrested arbitrarily in Sendafa in May 2002 and detained for nearly two months. Their students wanted to protest, but officials warned them and their parents that students would be shot if they demonstrated. They called off the protest.
At AAU, the country's largest and most important university, professors have likewise been forbidden to participate in ETA. This is part of a broader climate by the government-dominated university administration to stifle academic freedom. Threats on campus are more subtle, though. One professor said he declined to speak out during the student strike, although he was shocked that the government failed to resolve the situation before it led to so many deaths and arrests. He and other professors told Human Rights Watch that they refrain from criticizing government policies because there is no tenure in Ethiopia, and because, as government employees, all professors can be fired for speaking their minds even when they do so in their personal capacity. The government has made repeated promises to grant the university autonomy through a charter since 1991 but has yet to do so.
Educators and students are often among the first targets of governments that do not respect civil and political rights. In Ethiopia, as in many other countries, governmental power has been used to turn the educational institutions into a system that largely serves the interests of state power-holders. Academic freedom encompasses more than the freedom of professors to speak and write freely in their fields of specialization. It also recognizes the crucial role of academics as intellectual leaders of society. In countries such as Ethiopia where only a small percentage of the population completes secondary school, schoolteachers, and even high school students, are among the most educated members of society. Silencing such voices is not the way for Ethiopia, plagued by famine and insecurity, to emerge from its position as one of the poorest countries in the world.
This report is based primarily on research conducted in Ethiopia and Kenya in July 2002. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed students, teachers, professors, members of civil society, and international diplomats. Because government surveillance is perceived to be nearly omnipresent, many people expressed fear when speaking about human rights violations. Human Rights Watch respects the confidentiality of these sources. Human Rights Watch wrote to the government of Ethiopia and the Addis Ababa University administration to solicit its response to violations we had documented but received no response.