Amnesty International by Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa
After Mr. Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister of Ethiopia in 2018, his government opened space for freedom of expression, reformed the security forces and released political prisoners. It seemed like a miraculous new dawn for a country where civil and political freedoms have been repressed for decades. With this new sense of freedom, Ethiopians have become increasingly vocal about ethnic and religious grievances, past atrocities and political, cultural and economic marginalization. But hopes for a new era of human rights burn less brightly these days.
But hopes for a new era of human rights burn less brightly these days.
On 29 June, the country was wracked by massive protests sparked by the killing of Hachalu Hundesa, a popular Oromo singer. Although some protests were peaceful, others turned violent as youth attacked ethnic and religious minorities in Oromia; and the spiraling violence exposed deep-rooted political, ethnic and religious fault lines that go back for generations.
Similar violence erupted in the same region last October after Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo activist-turned Oromo Federalist politician, complained on social media about a government attempt to withdraw his state-provided security. In the ensuing violence, at least 86 people were killed in intercommunal fighting and by security forces, according to the authorities. Again, the government responded with excessive and lethal force, mass arrests and detentions. Almost a year later, there has been no credible investigation into the causes of the violence. None of the suspected perpetrators, including security forces, have been prosecuted.
Recurring incidents of violence have also been reported in four other regions besides Oromia; in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) Region; Harari Region; Benishangul and Amhara Regions, as well as Dire Dawa, an administrative state.It is clear the Ethiopian government now faces numerous challenges due to deep running cleavages that are yet to be properly addressed.
It is clear the Ethiopian government now faces numerous challenges due to deep running cleavages that are yet to be properly addressed.
The government needs to facilitate and not repress freedom of assembly, navigate complex security situations and protect the population in line with international human rights law. It must ensure that only strictly necessary and proportionate force is used to manage violence during some protests, and must end the use of excessive force, mass arrests and prolonged detention without trial or charge, if it does not wish to further exacerbate tensions and slide back to the repression of the past.
The government must also deliver justice and accountability for human rights violations by security forces as documented in Amnesty International’s Beyond Law Enforcement Report published in May 2020. The report revealed extrajudicial executions, rape, torture and ill-treatment, mass arrests, killings and incommunicado detention committed by security forces in parts of Oromia.
Our research also highlighted human rights abuses due to intercommunal violence, mainly with the complicity of security forces, against ethnic minorities in Amhara. Ethiopia’s Office of the Attorney General responded with its own investigations and said the government had taken decisive measures to ensure accountability of security forces and local administration officials. However, transparency around these investigations is elusive, judicial prosecutions lacking, and survivors are yet to see justice.The government needs to facilitate and not repress freedom of assembly, navigate complex security situations and protect the population in line with international human rights law.
In his maiden speech to parliament in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy took the brave decision to apologize for human rights violations committed during the 27 years in which the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was in power. It is vital that his government follows this up with concrete actions to secure justice for the many who still seek it.
Prosecutions of some former police and intelligence officers in 2018 for acts of torture and ill-treatment committed before 2018 while welcome were selective, limited in scope as some officials who committed violations never faced trial. The trials of some of those prosecuted lacked adequate criminal procedure protections as guaranteed by international human rights law. This has left countless victims of past and present human rights violations waiting in limbo.
While the government took the major step of releasing about 40,000 people arbitrarily detained for their political views and affiliations under the previous administration, these people are yet to receive reparations in line with international human rights standards.
Furthermore, while the National Reconciliation Commission established in 2018-19 has an important role to play, the legislation creating it and appointment of commissioners was rushed and lacked transparency, denying civil society and the population a say.More than two years after assuming office, it is more urgent than ever before, that Prime Minister Abiy outlines a roadmap for justice within the country’s transition.
While the Commission is mandated to document past conflicts and human rights violations to identify their causes, the law does not define its relationship to judicial investigations and prosecutions. There is a real risk that victims and survivors will not access justice and reparations, including the right to truth, accountability, compensation, rehabilitation or recognition.
More than two years after assuming office, it is more urgent than ever before, that Prime Minister Abiy outlines a roadmap for justice within the country’s transition. Ethiopians need clarity on when and how current and previous high-ranking government officials suspected of committing human rights violations will be investigated and prosecuted, how survivors will get reparations, as well as plans for legal and structural reforms needed to break with past repression.
Until Ethiopia deals with past atrocities and grievances – through justice for every era and every region – the country will remain susceptible to incidents sparking much bigger violence. Along with security sector reform, justice cultivates respect for rule of law it builds national confidence and unleashes the country’s potential for inclusive and just development, at a time when the African continent needs to look within for examples and for inspiration.