Criticism of Ethiopia’s violations of human rights

Western and Eastern Powers Perpetuate Tyranny and Violations of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms: Reflections on Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Human Rights Records of Ethiopia Held on May 6, 2014 at Geneva, Switzerland

Written by Hika Fekede Dugassa, writer and university lecturer, and guest writer in the town Molde, Norway.

   Ethiopian Human Rights Council
   Ethiopian Women Lawers Association
 Tigrean People Liberation Front
 Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front
      Charities and Societies Proclamation
       Anti Terrorism proclamation
       Oromo Liberation Front
    Ogadenian National Liberation Front
   United Narions Human Rights
       Universal Periodic review


The UNHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) has been evaluating the performances and commitments of member states on human rights and fundamental freedoms since 2006. This paper presents a reflection on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Human Rights Records of Ethiopia held on May 6, 2014 at Geneva, Switzerland. The paper has three sections. The first section gives a brief overview of trajectories and procedures of the UPR. The second section briefly accounts on Ethiopia’s participation in UPR and recommendations it has received from member states. The last portion of the paper gives author’s analysis of and reflections on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in Ethiopia and the recommendations and critics forwarded to Ethiopia. Based on evidences available, the author argues that representatives of member states, particularly developed countries are hypocritical of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Ethiopia. Being so, they perpetuate Tyranny and Violations of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in Ethiopia and other non-democratic nations in general.

An Overview of UPR
From 2006 onwards, it has become regular practice for the United Nations to evaluate the commitments of member states on human rights and fundamental freedoms.  Numerous international instruments are used as the standard against which member states are evaluated. The instruments vary from the United Nations Charter to the many international human rights and humanitarian instruments member states have voluntarily signed and ratified. As a result, every country that is a member of the United Nations participates in the UPR once every four and half years. The UPR is a one-to-one diplomatic process whereby governments comment on the human rights records of other governments. In the three and half hours, the country under review presents its report followed by criticisms and recommendations by member states. During the session, some governments cheer their allies with praise, while others governments use the UPR to offer sharp criticism. So, every statement from member states at the session has either something to praise the country under review with or has some statements of concern (criticism) for what is going on in the country accompanied by some recommendations for the government under review to accept. Later, the government under review must respond to each recommendation, stating whether it accepts, rejects or puts aside for later consideration.

Ethiopia on the 19th UPR Session and Condemnations, Recommendations and Praises from participant member states
For Ethiopia, this is the second UPR, with the first having taken place in December 2009. At the time (December 2009), the Human Rights Council issued for the EPRDF (TPLF) regime 143 recommendations with a view of helping it improve its ever-devastating human rights situation. Of those (the 143 issued) the regime acknowledged 99, rejected 32 arrogantly and isolated 12 others for future considerations (see However, in the final analysis none of the recommendations is implemented. Had it been implemented, the same criticisms and recommendations could have not been forwarded again by nations concerned about the situation of human rights in the country. So, it was after very poor performance by the TPLF people that this UPR session took place. As the Ethiopian delegates might have expected because they had not implemented the recommendations from the first UPR session and that human rights situation in the country had been worsened since then, there were a lot of criticisms and recommendations this time around as well. Countries were telling Ethiopia to change its behavior on human rights and fundamental freedom.

At this UPR, one hundred and nineteen countries participated and reflected on Ethiopia`s human rights’ records. Compared to many other countries´ UPR sessions, this is a bigger number and it is an indication that countries are concerned about Ethiopia´s situation. Cognizant of this fact, the regime sent handful delegates from its higher rank officials headed by the minster of foreign affairs to take part on the session. These delegates were presenting what they claimed to have achieved with regard to human rights and universal freedom in the country. Despite the country´s appalling human rights records, they again have dared to turn their ears deaf to the pouring criticisms from countries and tried to paint the country as a human rights heaven. It seems that Ethiopia´s huge number of delegates on this session was meant to go for the usual defiance to the critical stances from nations on Ethiopia´s human right abuses. On the other hand, it surprises one to hear very critical comments about Ethiopia`s human right situation from countries where Ethiopia´s government spending (30-40 percent) comes from in the form of aid.

Countries were boldly telling the Ethiopian delegates that it is necessary to amend the two proclamations adopted in 2009. Though I am one of the victims of Ethiopia´s ever devastating human right situation, I felt humiliated for Ethiopian delegates who were confronted with sharp criticism for what has been going on in the country. Among others, Ethiopia is:

I)                         recommended to work to loose the ethnic tension in the country´s political dynamics.
II)                      asked to allow free and fair election.
III)                   asked to allow freedom of expression and access to information.
IV)                   asked to allow political pluralism etc.
V)                      criticized for its recent crackdown on student protesters in Oromia regional state that resulted in the deaths of more than 50 innocent peaceful Oromo student protesters.
VI)                    urged to take urgent measures to investigate torture and extrajudicial killings committed by its national defense forces.
VII)          recommended to ensure that it has clear, independent, and effective complaints mechanisms in place for individuals to raise allegations of mistreatment by security, military, and law enforcement authorities and prison officials.

To help readers have a glimpse of which country was saying what during this UPR session, read the following summary of recommendations forwarded by some countries.

Ethiopia was recommended by Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States to fully implement its constitutional guarantees of freedom of association, expression, and assembly for independent political parties, ethnic and religious groups, and non-governmental organizations.

Canada urged Ethiopia to fully protect members of opposition groups, political activists, and journalists from arbitrary detention. Estonia called on Ethiopia to end harassment of political opposition party members, journalists, and human rights advocators. Finland recommended that Ethiopia is required to take further measures to ensure safety and freedom of human rights defenders.

Ethiopia was recommended by Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico, Netherland, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, and the United States to abolish or amend its Charities and Societies Proclamation to allow non-governmental organizations to operate more effectively and to receive fund from foreign donors.

Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland urged Ethiopia to narrow its definition of terrorism under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and exclude the practice of journalism from the definition, to ensure protections for freedom of expression and assembly, and to better allow non-governmental organizations to function. The United States called for Ethiopia to ensure that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation is applied apolitically.

Ethiopia was encouraged to amend its Mass Media Proclamation to bring it in line with international human rights standards by Australia, Czech Republic, Denmark, and France. Estonia, Ireland and South Korea urged Ethiopia to stop censorship and advised to respect press freedom.

The Czech Republic also called on Ethiopia to immediately release all journalists detained for their professional activities, including the bloggers and journalists arrested in April 2014 and those jailed earlier including Mr. Eskinder Nega and Ms R. Alemu.

Analysis and Reflections
Western countries are more than aware of the violations of human rights deliberately orchestrated by Ethiopian regime under the disguise of proclamations adopted to legalize its unconstitutional acts. Almost all western countries had pointed out in their recommendations that the draconian Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSP) and Anti-Terrorism Proclamation adopted into law in 2009 should be amended. To support their recommendation, they put that amending this laws would allow NGOs to resume their activities of supporting the country´s effort to improve its horrendous human right records. Today in Ethiopia, it is almost impossible to operate as NGO working on human rights because of the CSP, which either limits or forbids such activities. Besides the CSP the country has adopted anti-terrorism proclamation that particularly targets political pluralism, freedom of expression and access to information. ATP is vague and allows the government to criminalize peaceful professional acts of its citizens. After this proclamation was adopted, handful of journalists, bloggers and opposition political party members and leaders have been sentenced to long years of imprisonment and are behind bars because they are accused of violating the incriminating ATP.

It is appeasing to the ears that almost all western countries questioned the ruling party (EPRDF/TPLF) that it uses these proclamations to crack down on dissent voices. The regime´s powerful western allies are aware of these facts and they included them in their criticisms. At the time this UPR session was held, six bloggers and three journalists were freshly arrested for allegedly violating the ATP and only waiting for the same prison terms tens of their fellow journalists or colleagues were serving. The continuation of arrests and imprisonments of opposition political leaders, journalists, bloggers, and other professionals who are critical about the situation of human rights and fundamental freedom in the country is a clear indication that the regime is not paying heed to what member states are saying. It is therefore necessary to know that the condemnation of acts of the government for using the proclamations, and recommending the government to amend the laws on such meetings as the UPR does not seem to limit the regime´s notorious behavior. It is easy to see the devastating effects of these proclamations by looking at what happened in the country immediately after the CSP was adopted.

The proclamation began to hit its target immediately after being adopted into law. To have a glimpse of what this law did and doing to organizations working on human rights in the country, it is enough to see the impact on two Ethiopian NGOs. Before the CSP was adopted, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (HRCO) carried out high quality monitoring and documentation of violations through twelve offices across the country. Since the law was passed HRCO has closed down most of its offices and has cut at least 75 percent of its staff. This happened as a result of the practical obstacles the law creates against human rights activist. Immediately after the proclamation was ratified, its restrictions on receipt of foreign funds were applied straightaway in late 2009 to freeze the bank accounts of Ethiopian NGOs (HRCO and EWLA). These are two of the largest national NGOs operating in the country working on human rights. The law particularly is targeted to hinder the efforts of these NGOs by limiting their capability. As a result, the proclamation endangers the observance and protection of the rights of every person in Ethiopia as has been reported by Human Rights Watch. Moreover, this law criminalizes any and all independent human rights work that seeks to document or challenge the Ethiopian government’s unspeakable human rights violations (see human rights watch report on this particular issue).

I have heard about twenty African countries speaking at the session. Only Nigeria, Botswana and Namibia came up with critical condemnations of Ethiopia´s human rights violations. They forwarded similar recommendations like western countries. I was impressed with these African countries statement of condemnation of Ethiopia´s violation of human rights. On the other hand, China has preferred to abstain from criticizing and recommending the country on issues of prime importance to the Universal Periodic Reviews. China did the same four and half years ago. Instead, China praised Ethiopia for its so-called double-digit economic growth during the past ten years and recommended the country to work on gender equality. Understandably, China that has its own human rights violation issues at home and which at the same time is an emerging new ally of Ethiopia; never take a strong standpoint like other countries.

I call into question the criticisms of countries like the US and some Western European countries. They are strong Ethiopian allies and support the country financially as I have pointed out before. This made me to question the entire UPR´s integrity, seriousness and significance. If they really meant what they were criticizing and recommending, why were and are they not doing anything to influence the country take the recommendation seriously and translate them into action on the ground. There could be a number of ways western powers can pressure the Ethiopian regime to change its behavior in the past two decades and more. Ethiopia is one of the fist three countries receiving massive aid from the US annually. The US alone gives Ethiopia more than a billion dollar every year. Every year, developed countries like Great Britain, Germany, Norway, pour millions of dollars to Ethiopia. They support the same regime they criticize because of its poor human right records. Though I agree that withdrawing aid is not the best way to support humanitarian and development objectives in the country, I strongly believe that external actors, donors and others, should seek to defend human rights when they intervene in a country. They could use aid to leverage human rights improvements, just as they use it to push for other improvements in the country they donate to.

In the absence of such leverage, the TPLF-led regime’s violence against the Ethiopian people is abetted by military, political and economic assistance from external powers both directly and indirectly. So, it is very important for governments, both in the West and East like China to strike a balance between their national interests and their international obligation of protecting human rights and stop giving unregulated economic, military and political support to a brutal regime that is extremely suppressive. At the time this article is written, Ethiopian government is brutally cracking down on peaceful Oromo student demonstrators across the country. More than 49 were shot dead by special military force for peacefully protesting against the eviction of Oromo farmers around the capital city. At the same time six bloggers and three independent journalists were arrested and being charged of acts of terrorism as I have said before. This bloggers and journalists will most probably be found guilty under the 2009 adopted anti terrorism law and will soon find themselves side by side with other dissent voices already behind bars.

It can be controversial for western donors whether to use aid as a form of leverage to force aid-receiving countries like Ethiopia to promote and protect universally accepted human rights. However, it is not controversial whether to let such countries get access to and abuse western technologies or not. The country is enjoying the privilege of importing western technologies that it uses to spy on peaceful citizens in and out of the country. This is part of the effort the regime makes to silence dissent voices. No nation or company is out there to provide any reason for allowing this tyrannical regime to use these technologies. If asked, the Ethiopian government either denies owning and using the spyware tools and say such allegations are baseless. The Ethiopian government may even claim that it has the right to use these technologies following the footsteps of the US for its national security. National security, terrorism and war on terror in the context of Ethiopia have different definitions. Ethiopia is a country where true journalism and activism is terrorism and can cost one a life long imprisonment or capital punishment. In Ethiopia, to be a leader in an opposition political party and be critical about the ruling party (TPLF) is a crime of violation of the constitution and then a national security problem. Ethiopian regime is abusing the privilege of using these technologies despite its bad human right records in the past. This is indicative of a global trend towards the acquisition of offensive cyber capabilities by non-democratic regimes from commercial Western companies. This is one of the areas where some of western countries´ foreign policies go wrong.

Human Rights watch has recently reported that Ethiopia`s surveillance of phones and emails is rampant. The country has been able to acquire server access and spyware technology from western countries. Hacking Team (Italy) and Gamma/FinFisher (UK/Germany) are two companies the HRW report identifies as being compliant in the country’s efforts. Using the spyware technologies it acquires from these companies, the regime is spying on dissent voices. The 137 page report details the technologies the Ethiopian government has acquired from several countries and uses to facilitate surveillance of perceived political opponents inside the country and among the diaspora. The government’s surveillance practices violate the rights to freedom of expression, association, and access to information. The government’s monopoly over all mobile and Internet services through its sole, state-owned telecom operator, Ethiopian Telecom, facilitates abuse of surveillance powers.

At the UPR session, Germany and Italy were among the countries criticizing Ethiopia for its poor human right records. Contrary to their criticism, companies in these nations are outsourcing the technologies Ethiopia is using to violate human rights and fundamental freedom as reported by Human Rights Watch. Knowing that Ethiopia has very poor records of human rights and fundamental freedom, at the time when cyber espionage is global threats to fundamental human freedom, why are these countries letting their companies equip this country with spyware technologies, which they know it can potentially use them to spy on its peaceful citizens?

Concluding Remarks
I would like to say that western developed countries have the moral responsibility to see the human rights situation in the countries that they financially support. Supporting undemocratically governing regime is the equal of supporting the non-democratic nature of the regime and financing all its inhuman acts. Most of the humanitarian crises we have in developing countries are basically rooted in the bad governance of regimes that are supported by the western powers. This is like treating the symptoms of a disease while enhancing the cause. So, it is important and necessary that these countries reconsider their foreign policies when it comes to substantially supporting their allies annually with billions of taxpayers´ money without questioning to what extent these countries are living up to their international and national (constitutional) obligations.

The current Ethiopian regime has all the options available to transform the country into a democratic state whereby political pluralism help to achieve the equality needed. It has western countries on its side with the necessary financial and other supports. The smooth relationship between the west and Ethiopia that was established after the removal of the military communist regime in 1991 could go beyond donating/receiving billions of dollars every year. Currently the regime seems to stand with the US working together to combat Al-Shabab´s terrorism in Somalia but it has been involving in state terrorism at home. The regime intends to use this backing of the US and Western European countries as a green card to crack down on dissent voices. In the US and other powerful allies of Ethiopia anti terrorism laws are meant to protect citizens whereby in Ethiopia the ATP is a legal tool to criminalize dissent voices and put them behind bars.

Western and Eastern powers can do better to influence the country to live up to its national (constitutional) and international obligations. For example, after events like the UPR, there should be some measures to be taken on the countries that either refuses or accepts but not translates into action the recommendations forwarded. The consequences can vary based on the country´s human right situations. Putting the country under embargo can be one of the consequences for not accepting very important recommendations. This means that countries that do not take the recommendations seriously and continue to violate human rights should pay some price. This can be either diplomatically, economically or other kinds of embargos that can deter the country from its acts of violence. The UPR can be very strong and effective, if such measures are built-in the mechanism. Moreover, I strongly believe that countries with serious human rights violations like Ethiopia, will take into account the recommendations forwarded at the UPR session and other similar events if some consequences are incorporated in the mechanisms.