More action needed to stop human rights violations in Ethiopia

imgpsh fullsizeCIVICUS spoke to Yared Hailemariam, the director of Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE), concerning the recent killing of protesters in the country. AHRE is an NGO initiative of Ethiopian human rights activists that fled the country and is dedicated to the advancement of human rights protection in Ethiopia.

1. Can you detail the main causes of the current protests in Ethiopia?

The current protest in Ethiopia’s Oromia region began in November 2015. The first and main cause of the protests was the controversial government proposal of a Master Plan for the capital, Addis Ababa, which aims to expand the city by taking over several Oromia towns surrounding the capital. Protestors say the implementation of the plan will result in the displacement of thousands of local farmers who settled in the area many years back. The protest was started by students in Oromia region and then farmers and other members of the Oromo ethnic group joined the demonstrations. 

2. The government has now said that it has halted the Master Plan. What are the implications of this on the current protests?

This Master Plan which is known as the “Addis Ababa Integrated Regional Development Plan” was announced by the government in April 2014. That announcement was followed by bloody protests in April and May 2014 after government forces used excessive force to stop peaceful Oromo protesters who opposed the plan. As a result, dozens were killed, hundreds of students were arrested, and many charged under the anti-terrorism law, and many others left the country. After the 2014 bloody events, the government promised to settle the disputes raised concerning the Master Plan by holding inclusive and transparent dialogue with all stakeholders especially the local residents, opposition parties, civil society representatives and local officials. However, the promises were not adhered to hence the current protest is due to those unfulfilled promises on lack of consultations.

Since the current protest started in mid-November 2015 a large number of causalities and mass arrests have been reported. These are unlawful, brutal and irresponsible acts of the government aim to dismantle the protests. The intensity of the response of the armed forces in the Oromia region exacerbated the situation. Even after the government announced its decision to halt the implementation of the Master Plan, a number of casualties were still being recorded.

In the last few weeks the protestors were also raising other serious issues such as lack of the rule of law, accountability of the state, corruption, justice problems, inequality, lack of democracy, and non-respect for basic rights of citizens.

3. It has been reported that approximately 160 people have already been killed during the protests. Can you describe the extent of the violations committed during the protests?

The current protest started on 12 November 2015 in a small town called Ginchi, which is about 80 kilometres south-west of Addis Ababa. After a week, the protests spread throughout the Oromia region. In most places the protests were peaceful including at universities, high schools and elementary students. But the response of the army and police was disproportionate to the protests as they attacked protestors killing more than 160 people and wounding many others.

On 1 December 2015 the Federal Police killed Gazahany Oliiqaa, a Haromaya University student. Some of those killed included young students and children between the ages of seven and 15 years old.

Thousands of protestors, including opposition leaders, journalists and activists were also arrested. In December 2015, prominent opposition leader Bekele Gerba, two journalists Getachew Shiferaw and Fikadu Mirkana, online activist Yonatan Teressa and four other Blue Party members were arrested. The Ethiopian authority labelled them as terrorists. In two of the main universities in the Oromia Region, including Harromaya University there were explosions in which a number of students sustained serious injuries.

4. In light of the multitude of restrictions imposed on the media and civil society in Ethiopia, to what extent has civil society been able to document and report on the protests?

Ethiopia has for a long time severely restricted press freedom and the work of civil society. It is one of the top countries when it comes to jailing journalists, many of whom it charges under the 2009 anti-terrorism law. The space for civil society to carry out their work has also been narrowed since the adoption the 2009 Charity and Societies Proclamation. This law has crippled the ability of many local NGOs especially those who work in the area of human rights. The restrictions imposed on media and civil society have a significant impact on the monitoring, documentation and reporting of the situation of human rights in Ethiopia.

As far as I am aware the current protest in Oromia region have not been well documented or investigated by the independent media or human rights organisations. Only a few foreign journalists tried to report the protest. The rest of the information has been gathered by local amateur social media activists who reported most of the incidents from the scene. Together with the foreign media, local journalists are not allowed to carry out investigations on the protest. The only local human rights organisation, the Human Rights Council (HRCO) has expressed its concern on the protest and asked the government to stop the killings and targeting of peaceful protestors. However, it was unable to conduct its investigation or reporting because of restrictions and budget constraints that hinder it from covering the whole country.

5. Has the response of the international community been adequate?

I could say that in the last two months the response of the international community has not been adequate especially when the number of causalities were rising daily. There has not been any strong pressure on the Ethiopian government to stop the excessive use of force against protesters. Perhaps the first response from the international community is the motion of the European Parliament for a resolution on the current situation in Ethiopia which has adopted on 21 January 2016.  There is still more to be done by the international community to stop the continuing violations of human rights in Ethiopia before the situation gets out of control and leads to political instability in the country.

6. What can international and regional civil society groups do to support activists in the country?

Activists in the country have faced numerous challenges and many restrictions as they perform their day to day activities. They are also subject to direct attack by government authorities. The Ethiopian government is labelling activists who criticise its policies as terrorists. As a result, the participation and visibility of Ethiopian activists in international and regional human rights mechanisms is very low and limited. This gap can be closed with a strong commitment and efforts of the international and regional civil society who have better access to advocate on the situation of Ethiopia at all levels. They could also support the work of local activists through capacity building, financing their work, consulting, supporting their research work and providing technical and security support.