Review of human rights records of 42 states begins next week in Geneva, Ethiopia’s included (Part I)

21 Jan

by Keffyalew Gebremedhin – The Ethiopia Observatory

In 2014, 42 United Nations member states would undergo what is formally known as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of their human rights records. The first of the three such sessions during 2014 takes place from January 27 to February 7, under the overseer of the United Nations Human rights Council in Geneva.

The first time Ethiopia passed through the UPR processes was at the 6th session in 2009. It took place at a striking moment in the country’s history. More precisely, it was at almost a half year distance from the 2010 election when the ruling party said it won every seat in parliament save one, and against the backdrop of the bloody 2005 election. Guiding the work of the Council as pertains to Ethiopia at that point was the tragic outcome of the 2005 election. The tragedy was still alive and fresh in the minds of the Council’s members, as their conversations, the questions they raised and the recommendations the Council adopted have shown.

It would be recalled in that context, during that October – November UPR session, Council members repeatedly inquired through Ethiopia’s representatives (the ministries of foreign affairs, interior, justice and the ruling party’s human rights commission), among others, about failures in regard to electoral integrity, treatment of opposition parties, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, of assembly and organization and about the many political prisoners, etc. In framing their questions, Council members also wondered in substance and in theory to see how Ethiopia planned to bring closure to the tragic aftermaths of that election in which several scores of lives were lost and rifts within society “instituted” with terrible degree of polarization, as if for one of the few oldest nations on the planet these were a natural order.

In consequence, this showed the Council that one of the adverse implications to Ethiopia of this is the still lingering unhealthy influences on its political and social processes. Four years already gone, even if the 2009 UPR processes have not helped improve the Ethiopian human rights situation. It is seen clearly now that not only the behavior of those in power has hurt the country’s reputation especially in the eyes of its citizens and foreign observers. But also, the Council at its 19th session in April – May 2014 is once again to revisit Ethiopia’s human rights performances for the second time under the same UPR mechanism.

A failure this time by anyone side cannot be seen in isolation from being a failure of the global system of international cooperation and solidarity. Fortunately, this is propitious time as there are more concerns from both at home and abroad, as are available also diverse sources of information to the Council than the earlier period.

The issue now is whether the Council would be guided by what Ethiopia has accomplished this far in respecting the human rights of its people, with the help of the Council’s 142 recommendations from 2009 as roadmap. Or would the Council look the other way, choosing to gloss over things and becoming irrelevant?

Also it is possible that there may be pressure on some Council members on one hand due to the economic and strategic interests of powerful nations. At the same time on the other those in power have kept their heavy foot on the genuine internal defenders of the interests of the Ethiopian people, as is the case smiting the opposition and civil society groups, which all the more has made difficult realization of the Council’s objectives for Ethiopia under its UPR mandates.

UPR and the Human Rights Council

Created in 2006, the UPR is a mechanism by which the human rights records of all United Nations member states are reviewed. A working group, operating on behalf of the Human Rights Council and comprising all 47 members of the Council, carries out this task.

To date, while the UPR mechanism and its outcomes have hardly managed to get the international attention they deserve, the mechanism remains a primary outfit of United Nations in the field of human rights and its standard setting work and investigations of human rights violations, wherever required, is still of immense importance.

Nevertheless, a major obstacle the UPR has been experiencing and a challenge to its effectiveness is the herd mentality of member states, for which conference diplomacy’s notoriety is well recognized and has well suited offenders. This attitude is brought into the Council’s work by defensive and human rights violator member states – as part of their efforts and strategy to shield themselves from such review exercises.

Major manifestations of this are interventions by allied countries exaggerating positive achievements or derailing discussions and watering down conclusions and recommendations. The aim is to do gloss over jobs on thorny issues on behalf of a friendly country under review. Recall that, under a different format though, this was also one of the problems from which the work of United Nations human rights bodies had suffered during the Cold War.

Nevertheless, the purpose of the UPR is not adversarial. Its objective is to encourage/help improve global implementation by member states of the obligations they have accepted under the United Nations Charter and the relevant international human rights instruments. In other words, its ultimate goal is, as the Office of the High Commissioner has described it, “to promote the universality, interdependence, indivisibility and interrelatedness of all human rights.”

Annually, the UPR is carried out three times in accordance with well-publicized schedule and examination of the performances of countries under existing international instruments. The Council’s recommendations and conclusion are officially released to the public, including the proceedings through electronic media and over United Nations audiovisual system.

Accordingly, the second review session takes place during April-May, when Ethiopia is one of 14 states called upon for the human rights dialogue. The third session comes during October – November 2014. The work undertaken by the United Nations in this area is in addition to the regular functions of the Human Rights Council, which convenes annually in month-long session in March in Geneva. In addition, there are numerous subsidiary bodies – treaty bodies and special procedures activities undertaking investigations and studies year round.

This year, the Human Rights Council meets from March 3 – 28.

Explaining how the UPR mechanism works

Ethiopian Human Rights Chief Commissioner Tiruneh Zena( Credit: The Reporter)

Ethiopian Human Rights Chief Commissioner Tiruneh Zena( Credit: The Reporter)

Before the UPR begins its work, three member states are selected from the 47 members of the Human Rights Council, designated representatives to serve as rapporteurs for each country to be reviewed. In UN parlance, these are referred to as the “troika”. Their task is to facilitate the review by Council members during the interactive dialogue with the state concerned and preparation of conclusions and recommendations for action by the Council.

Therefore, 42 states have just been selected as the troika for the 2014 undertakings – three per reviewee country for the January – February 2014 18th session, according to the United Nations.

One severe deficiency of the mechanism is that it allows the worst human rights offenders to sit in judgment of other countries’ records. This raises the puzzling question of if ever one should expect anything meaningful to come out in 2014 from the United Nations work in the field of human rights, given the human rights records of some of the Council’s members themselves.

This year, for instance, those that sit in judgment of the human rights performance of other states include, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Russia, UAE, Venezuela, etc. Of course, as it stands now, for the United Nations this is purely a question of the mandate itself, as much of arithmetic of the membership that such states should now happen to be both the members of the Human Rights Council and also of the troika – in essence judge and jury.

This is not to imply that the remaining countries in the Council have unblemished records. It is only to suggest that one cannot equate records that show human rights infringements of some magnitude, where citizens have recourse to courts and the laws, with those that routinely practice torture as a matter of policy and convenience, or other forms of state violences such as kidnapping and sodomization of political opponents as means of deterring opposition political activities, as in the case of Ethiopia and a few others; some of them also routinely engage in disappearances of their opponents, to which Ethiopia’s name also creeps up, as it did during the 2009 review, as the documents show.

In this connection, it is an ironic twist that, for instance, Ethiopia and those with bad human rights records should now be serving as member of the troika in the 18th and 20th sessions. Ethiopia is spared of its services for the 19th session in April-May 2014 simply because it is one of those countries whose records would be a subject of reviews. Ethiopia and others that are being accused of severe human rights violations have come to be placed in this capacity due to the automaticity of election regional mechanisms allow, which supported its candidature for membership of the Human Rights Council from 2012 – 2015 and was so selected by the United Nations General Assembly.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia, with its equally obnoxious human rights records, is designated to serve in three instances as a member of the troika: 18th, 19th and 20th UPR sessions, serving as judge and jury on the human rights records of other countries – both as member of the Council and rapporteur in its capacity as troika member thrice in 2014. Saudi Arabia completed the reviews of its records in October – November 2013.

Consequently, the ways the system works being what it is, there is enormous need to review this approach with a view to improving United Nations work in the field of human rights. Until that moment, there is no better alternative for the international community but to lumber through this pretentious exercise, as the human rights agenda has globally been pushed into the backburner.

Therefore, countries scheduled for UPR in 2014 are required to send to Geneva their senior officials from the relevant line ministries to explain policies, laws and practices and to respond to questions by members of the Human Rights Council.

All 2014 reviewee countries have been notified to submit their national performance reports by the deadline of October 2013. This is to enable the Council members to understand the state of human rights in the concerned country, whether its implementation of the UN human rights instruments in all aspects of the lives of citizens in that country requires improvements.

The information so gathered enables the members of the Council to be armed with background information, processed by the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s office. In addition to the national reports, the Council members would also have inputs from national human rights institutions, the UN country team in each such country, the specialized agencies of the United Nations and international human rights organizations and from other stakeholders, including civil society organizations.

Members of the Human Rights Council ask whatever questions they deem important and necessary to shed light on the human rights situation in a given country. As mentioned earlier, it is in this phase of the exercise that at times the herd mentality of states emerges through spoilers that intervene to systematically defend the worst violators of human rights on the planet.

Nonetheless, at the end of the UPR exercise, the United Nations Council on Human Rights adopt a report on each reviewee, with recommendations to help improve the human rights situation in that country.

There would be a follow-up of this with cooperation of the national governments concerned. The record also shows that not much cooperation is often secured from those countries already recognized as violators of the human rights of their peoples. When governments refuse to cooperate, other measures would be taken, engaging the government at the highest level possible. A recent case in point is that of Saudi Arabia. It is only when such approaches fail and the problems persist that the Council is likely to be compelled to decide to pass the matter to Special Rapporteur procedures.

This entails in country visits and investigations and preparation of reports to the Council and the General Assembly.

Currently, there are 37 special rapporteurs and country mandates as at October 2013. These are assigned by the Council at different times and partly borne through such reviews over period of time and still are active. Their continuation is either because the problems have not been resolved as in country cases, e. g. human rights situations in Cambodia, Iran, Sudan, Palestine Territories, Eritrea, torture, disappearances, arbitrary executions, etc. Or it could be because such problems as slavery, poverty, shelter, etc, are of long-term nature and studies are being carried out to address by national and international policy measures.

Notwithstanding the many weaknesses of the UPR processes, the UN considers it an important part of its efforts aimed at contributing to the building and strengthening of national human rights institutions. Unfortunately, the record on the ground does not bear strong testimony in the affirmative in that that regard, if only one examines the records of those notorious states that have gone through the UPR processes since since 2008, including Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, etc.

As mentioned above, Ethiopia’s human rights record was examined in 2009 and that of Saudi Arabia, whose UPR report was released in December 2013, after it had gone through its Q and A with Council members in the Oct-Nov 2013 session, are cases in point of the inefficacy of the system.

Ethiopia’s review and recommendations adopted at the time

The Ethiopia report was examined on December 9, 2009 and outcome of the process was released in its final form in January 2010, which is contained in document A/HRC/13/17. The troika for Ethiopia were: Chile, Italy and Kyrgyzstan. At the time, members of the Council raised a huge number of observations and comments on Ethiopia’s poor human rights records. These touched upon: police brutality, arbitrary detention, threats to freedom of expression and assembly, religious tolerance, working conditions for human rights defenders, accountability issues, the 2005 election and its ramifications and the need to clarify events of the aftermath, revamping electoral code, anti-terrorism and charities and societies laws, ending unfair trials, torture and extrajudicial killings, human rights violations in the Ogaden, and etc.

While 98 recommendations were accepted by Ethiopia, it is not sufficiently clear how many of them have been implemented. The Council disaggregated 32 other recommendations and presented them separately, denoting them as issues lacking Ethiopia’s support. These included: signing and ratifying the second optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (abolition of death penalty), agreeing to visit by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, protecting children from torture, depoliticization of ethnicity, amending anti-civil societies and terrorism laws, ethnic balance in government, etc.

Other 12 observations are recorded separately for which Ethiopia promised to respond in due course. These related to protection of human rights defenders, strengthening of efforts to address the causes of ethnic conflicts within Ethiopian territory, raising the age of criminal responsibility in children, etc.

In March 2010, Ethiopia returned with its responses – in writing to those 12 points. As far as anti-terrorism and anti-Societies and charities laws are concerned, on one hand Ethiopia rejected the allegations as “unfounded.” On the other, it solicited technical assistance to improve and update the laws. Again at the same time, it indicated, “Sufficient time should be given to the implementation of these laws to identify possible gaps, if any, and see how these gaps can be filled.” The inconsistency in Ethiopia’s report is that it at the same time claims that these laws are consistent with Ethiopia’s obligations under international law, in respect of the fundamental human rights principles.

In regard to enforced disappearances, Ethiopia’s response was positive as far as acceptance of the principle is concerned, while on the ground it has hardly changed the practices of the state security system. Nonetheless, its response makes clear the state’s intention “to sign the International Convention for the protection of All persons from enforced Disappearances and consider the ratification of the Convention in due course; the Protocol to Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”, which prohibits enforced disappearances.

When one takes into account, the continuing practices of kidnapping and individuals being lost without traces, it is clear that the UPR processes have had little impact on the behavior of the Ethiopian state. Recall, for instance, the shameful action by security forces against Ato Abebe Akalu of Andinet last October and his being subjected by three members of the internal security to sodomization; or the case of Eng. Abebe Balcha of Blue Party, whose disappearance was reported by the party. The finding not long ago during construction work at Janmeda of six bodies within premises of a military command post, wrapped in individual blankets that still maintain their colour and of their being of recent action are telling evidences.

On the question of free and fair election, Ethiopia indicated in its response, “Free and unrestricted political campaign, based on a mutually agreed framework on a fair and equitable use of publicly owned media, has already commenced. An independent and well-funded national electoral body, the National Electoral Board, has been established with the mandate to run the elections.”

Regarding the 2005 election, the government’s response rather defended its refusal to entertain the request for the release of opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa; the response dwelt on the question whether she had asked for pardon. Nothing in the state’s response is discussed about ensuring the integrity of election in Ethiopia on a standing basis.

As discussed above, the main tool the Human Rights Council has is the threat or coercion of referral to special procedures or appointment of special rapporteurs. These are individual human rights experts that would be designated in the event of lack of cooperation to follow-up the situation in the country and report to the Council and the United Nations General Assembly, when human rights situation is source of grave concern. Ethiopia did not want to be exposed to any of that. Therefore, it agreed with the Council’s 96 recommendations, which the members believed would improve the human rights situation in the country, as instructive as the human rights situation in Ethiopia has become.

The situation is expected to be much tougher this time around than last time, given that not only there are many unimplemented recommendations, but also reversals the world has witnessed, notwithstanding that the regime in its last submission in 2009 tried to portray the country as a nation governed by the rule of law.

There is now more public information available on the situation in the country, which would make it less likely for the state to escape scrutiny on the basis of performance indicators in the health and education sectors alone. Individual freedom in Ethiopia is in danger in Ethiopia more than anytime before.

Aware of Ethiopia’s UPR schedule, many organizations have started submitting their complaints, including the Ethiopian Women’s Human Rights Alliance (EWHRA) Submits Human Rights Report on Ethiopia to the United Nation’s Universal Periodic Review. EWHRA focussed on the denial of the ” freedom of expression, freedom of association and political rights, freedom of religion, persecution of ethnic groups and forced displacement of indigenous people from ancestral lands and freedom from arbitrary arrests and detentions.”

On its part, Human Rights Watch already in November 2013 reiterated many of the issues raised in 2009 that Ethiopia has failed to give effect to. HRW described the post-2009 human rights environment in Ethiopia as one of “a harsh intolerance for any criticism of government actions and a sharp decline in freedoms of expression and association.” It further added:

    “Political space has also constricted as the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has consolidated control, the EPRDF officially won 99.6% of the votes in the 2010 parliamentary elections after intimidating political opponents, restricting media, and ensuring political support through its control of access to government services and other resources. Over the past five years most legitimate political avenues for peaceful protest have been shut down and opposition leaders, civil society activists, and independent journalists have been jailed or forced to flee.”


It is time to reform the UN Human Rights Council

Can the Human Rights Council be effective with more than half its members having unpleasant human rights records? This is the question that has been coming repeatedly, especially after the election of Ethiopia in November 2011 as member of the Council and again last November when Saudi Arabia was selected to serve on the Council from 2013- 2016. We see the conversation in cyberspace that the question in the minds of many is how such important issues as human rights could be sufficiently handled, when 47 percent of the members of the 47 members of the Council have human rights deficient records, ranging from bad to the ugliest.

I have repeatedly mentioned in this piece as examples Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia. This is not without reason. Anyone who has surveyed the international media coverage of the Human Rights Council’s membership and its operations in these two years would notice that there are severe criticisms of their records and behaviors. It is not without reason these two countries are repeatedly mentioned by renowned individuals, institutions and most importantly complaints by citizens of those countries referring to them as worst human rights offenders.

This brings to mind if there should be any realistic expectations of the United Nations itself in regard to its records of achievements in the field of human rights. The Secretary-General seems to think that there is reasonably good record, in spite of the above anecdotal examples. For instance, in 2007 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon confidently asserted, “All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the Human Rights Council as a forum and a springboard for action.”

Is that really the case, when one takes into account, among others, Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia’s human rights records? Or is he prepared to amend his invitation to people whose human rights have been and are being violated? Or could he be induced to consider initiating reform processes of the Council, after these seven years of unsatisfactory performances of the Human Rights Council?

In August 2012, Freedom House complained about Ethiopia’s failure to abide by the commitments it entered in the 2009 UPR. It recalled in that connection that Ethiopia had agreed to accept 99 of the 142 recommendations put forward by members of the council’s Working Group.

It noted: “Notable recommendations dealt with concerns over implementation of the antiterrorism proclamation; political prisoners; endangered freedoms of expression, association, and assembly; and formulating a national plan of action on human rights. While such a plan was unveiled in March 2013, little to no progress has been made to improve the operating environment for civil society and independent media. Despite the flow of significant funding from donors, the national Human Rights Commission has not become an independent watchdog that monitors, investigates, and reports on violations. Ethiopia will come up for another review under the UPR system at the April/May 2014 session.”

The present human rights reality in Ethiopia is unacceptable – not only to the people of Ethiopia, but also to its genuine friends around the world!


One Response to “Review of human rights records of 42 states begins next week in Geneva, Ethiopia’s included (Part I)”


  1. Review of human rights records of 42 states begins next week in Geneva, Ethiopia’s included (Part I) Keffyalew Gebremedhin - Ethiopian news - January 23, 2014

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