Ethiopia needs all the help it could garner, including by visiting UN Special Rapporteur to ensure respect for human rights sticks in a nation that has been through a lot!

7 Dec

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

Backgrounder

Ethiopians have not as yet officially heard of David Kaye’s assessment of the human rights situation in Ethiopia. I guess he still happens to be in the country, having arrived in Addis Abeba on Monday December 2, 2019.

I know he still is in Ethiopia, as we have not learned from the media about his mission culminating in an exit meeting with the nation’s prime minister, as is the tradition.

Otherwise, a quiet exit may emit a different message, an ominous sign Ethiopia’s ugly past of habitual refusal of cooperation with the UN Special Procedures mechanism having made a quiet comeback. Human Rights Watch once described this state of affairs with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as a “history of [Ethiopia’s] non-cooperation…with UN special mechanisms…” It is only in 2006, Ethiopia was compelled to accept the UN special rapporteur on Eritrea.

Therefore, the present non-meeting with special rapporteur with the highest level of the ruling Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) government may come as a confirmation that past negative habit is alive and well and is still kicking. 

For sanity’s sakes, I would like to believe the Special Rapporteur still must be busy consulting with Ethiopian officials and possibly citizen’s groups too, his mission being the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, the last year and a half having witnessed Ethiopians speaking their minds, without fear and restraints until June 2019.

As Ethiopian citizens are now being confronted by a government with every passing day that increasingly relies on its knuckles than the laws of the land, the Special Rapporteur’s presence in Ethiopia is likely to be of great significance. He too in his tweet of Dec. 1 , below, has underlined the importance he attaches to this mission, during embarkation of his Ethiopia-bound flight. When I saw it, it has expressed to me the importance he attaches to his visit, I saw, as an implicit signal to Ethiopian officials and citizens to do the same.


“en route to  for what i expect to be one of the most important official missions of my  mandate. looking fwd to productive meetings with officials and civil society alike.”

We may have to wait and see its outcome. Yet it still is possible to assume David Kaye’s visit now, unlike any other before in a distant past, the Abiy Administration may receive him. It could be taken as sign of willingness to engage and hopefully wanting to improve the many human rights deficits in the country’s practice. It could also be helpful in improving the legal inadequacies of institutions that need correcting—symptomatically even as pertains to independence of judges, or the total legal and institutional lapses in official accountability, starting from the prime minister’s office down to lower rungs of government.

If done right, the special rapporteur and Ethiopia locking minds could help bring into line the country’s human rights laws with international human rights laws and international practices, if his recommendations are accepted and implemented, even before awaiting their official approval, endorsement and publication by the United Nations Human Rights Council and by the General Assembly in 2020 respectively.

The Special Rapporteur has come with an important mission on behalf of the United Nations and its Member States to primarily engage Ethiopian officials, civil society (if still any with legal status), as clouds of strongman rule has become more evident on the Ethiopian firmament, indeed as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is also awaiting the official blessing of a legal standing to his long-sought Hate Speech Crime bill.

Thus the special rapporteur would review and hopefully help remove the looming concerns in Ethiopia, among others, arising from the draft hate speech bill itself, which currently is before the so-called House of People’s Representatives. If allowed to pass without any safeguards, it portends disaster for Ethiopian people’s two-year old hardwon freedoms of opinion and expression. 

The concern in Ethiopia today is real and it’s coming subtly, while the legal instrument’s harshness is slowly and quietly is gaining ground, the desire to control easily already catching up with the past.

Equally worrying  should be citizens of a poor country being forced to arm and defend themselves against the state, or against armed groups at a time when ethnic tension has charged the political environment and illegal weapons keep flowing unrestrained across the nation’s borders with Djibouti, Kenya, the Sudan and South Sudan. State inspectors and border guards are only catching contraband weapons possibly once a week or ten days, on rare cases twice a  week.

David Kaye, Director at the International Justice Clinic at the University of California, Irvine School of Law and a member of the Advisory Board of the International Justice Resource Center, is the first human rights special rapporteur to visit Ethiopia under the United Nations Human Rights Council’s special procedures.  This is because of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) refusal of entry into the country for any of the several special rapporteurs and holders of varying United Nations Human Rights mechanisms, given the naked human rights violations going on in the country

The Hate Speech draft bill

Once its Hate Speech bill is approved, Abiy’s administration claims, it would help it combat ‘fake news and hate speeches’.  Nevertheless, there is sincere concern of citizens informed by lessons taken from behaviour of the barely two year old Abiy Ahmed ‘s government.  Arrests and imprisonments of innocent citizens, in violation of their human rights in the wake of the post-Bahir Dar and Addis Abeba killings of officials has been adequate forewarning.

On reflection, the government’s daring in locking up 250 individuals by the use of the defunct anti-terrorism law as its legal instrument worries many. Also investigators were accused of being singularly interested in questioning the members of the legal Nationalist Movement of Amharas (NAMA) as to their financing sources have been. They were reportedly never questioned about the alleged ‘coup’ and whatever happened.

This puts in clear light how increasingly aggressive the administration has become imprisoning and mistreating innocent citizens. This possibly arose from NAMA’s popularity and successes, having grown faster in the Amhara Region, its organisational strength of over two million members in about two years of its existence worrying the ruling party. 

In a piece The Controversial Coup Attempt in Ethiopia, Ezega staff-writer Blen Girma rightly observes within two weeks of the alleged coup attempt:

“General Asaminew’s supporters also claim senior officials at the federal government masterminded the attack in Amhara state by using the ‘attack’ or the ‘coup’ as a cover. They claim the real targets were the newly formed movements such NAMA (Amhara National Movement). They show as proof the immediate mass arrest by the federal government in Addis Ababa of opposing forces in the regional state of Amhara, including NAMA.

Following the tragic events, the federal forces arrested hundreds of people in the regional state and other parts of the country in a crackdown of suspected supporters of the failed coup attempt. The arrests contradict the government’s prior stand and commitment that it will never file charges against anyone or arrest suspects without having a reliable evidence.”

In the light of the above and the government misinformation, the public has been fed, what is done to those in detention under false charges, forcing many Ethiopians to distrust Abiy Ahmed’s government.

And yet someone who had donned the mantle of Ethiopian Broadcast Authority in late November threw himself into the ring, suggesting The main place of hate speech and false information is the social media, and currently we do not have any mechanism to control them. But we are aware that the new law which is under preparation will give us the mandate to control the social media.”

Accordingly, putting it mildly, there is no certainty what the Abiy Administration could do with it once his Hate Speech bill is approved. The overriding concern is the likelihood of the Hate Speech Law being abused to curtail the freedoms citizens have been enjoying in these less than past two years, coming after three decades of TPLF’s inhuman represson.

No doubt the government’s concern about the spread of ‘fake news and hate speech’ is legitimate. Nevertheless, equal importance must be attached to the concerns of informed citizens. That is, this law in the hands of Abiy Ahmed’s administration could be abused. Given what happened to other human rights laws, this concern  should not be dismissed as outlandish.

The likelihood of this law being abused to cower and silence citizens before and during the forthcoming election is far greater.

 

Elite party hacks & political salesmen on duty

This writer has watched discussions by government officials and ruling party members on television several times, defending policy lines. There are also elites and party hacks on salesmanship duty swearing out their lungs in defense of the draft bill, without it even benefiting from genuine public discussions that could have helped it secure assurances against its abuses by the ruling party.

For nearly two weeks now, the draft has been before parliament, its transmittal note from the Council of Ministers to the ‘House of People’s Representatives, according to the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA), stating the objectives: “to target the spread of hate speech and fake news, which would help to deter irresponsible social media activism and disinformation dissemination.”

Anyone who has observed the Abiy Administration’s reactions after the 2019 June alleged ‘coup’ still inadequately explained killings how even the officials in Bahir Dar and Addis Abeba were killed and thus the links between the two, must take lessons how innocent individuals were picked and languished in prison for months. That statement is not and cannot give assurances that the state cannot exceed ‘its mandate’!

Prior to his arrival in Addis Abeba, Mr. Kaye observed on 27 November come with awareness of the country’s situation and government attitude, as follows:

“The new administration that took office last year undertook major political reforms that have been praised by many.  On the other hand, some have voiced concerns that more needs to be done to fulfil human rights law and standards related to freedom of opinion and expression.

“I will focus particularly on the measures taken by the Government to fulfil its human rights obligations relating to freedom of expression, including the protection of journalists, with a view to formulating recommendations.

“As the House of Peoples’ Representatives is discussing a law to combat hate speech, my visit is particularly timely. I look forward to fruitful discussions on the draft bill with representatives from all branches of the State.

 

Why do nations need the Special Rapporteur?

Scrutiny into the Ethiopian government’s actions and behaviour now is not only extremely necessary and inevitable. But also it is in order as the country is headed by a nobel laureate prime minister, from whom is expected ability to show example of himself to others. 

That is why it is important that Mr. Kaye’s consultation with government officials and other stakeholders be open and transparent.  The prime minister’s honest engagement with the special rapporteur is of paramount importance, given that he is the source of and one who signals policy implementations across the government. Accountability in this Ethiopia is not a must, but preference depending on the attitude of the prime minister, not guilt or innocence of any suspected person, if it all he falls under investigation. 

The Special Rapporteur’s visit also coincides with the prime minister’s expected trip to Oslo, Norway, in a revised plan possibly Sunday just to deliver his speech, pick up his Nobel Peace Prize and the check and rush back home.

This departure from established Nobel Prize awards tradition has come as embarrassing primarily to the nation and to the prime minister too. It appears,  according to the Ethiopia rumour mill, has been forced up him as probably impossible to override. 

The sort of a force majeure he has faced, the dictionary definition puts which is  couched in a legal sense as “unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract.”

If that is the case, perhaps the Nobel Committee’s first interpretation of Abiy’s withdrawal from the encounter with international journalists as “highly problematicis within the ambit of that ‘legal definition’. However, the Committee’s second remark casts him as “evader”.  While I understand the Committee’s irritation and what the ‘amputated programme’ does to the organisers, I can’t miss the implication of Peace Prize winner avoids questionsbordering an attack on the person’s integrity, upon which in previous time the Committee had heaped praises in its statement announcing his selection for the peace prize.

The force majeure that dragged him down into a breach of long established Nobel Peace Prize tradition, it appears, according to the rumour  is to spare the prime minister from any embarrassment the Islamist ethnic anti-Ethiopian Jawar Mohammed, who during last few days had his look around Oslo in November, more precisely the 26 and 27th of the month and tweeted “his concern” especially his protestors’ as he expressed his ‘concern’ to his opponents with his tweep coming to protest “…This place is freeeeezing…”

No freezing weather seems to deter Jawar supporters and opponents, as we see from their reactions to his tweet, above—83 retweets and 820 likes—some hailing him as “bro Somali”, another “praying and hoping bro 😂Subhaan Allah…”. Still another asking Jawar “…not to worry…if it’s a protest against you, we will be there rain or shine, freezing cold or smoldering heat …you name it!!!”

 



What is troubling on Addis Abeba’s end is the issuance of a face-saving statement, dated December 6. The prime minister’s office has given explanations why he, unlike other Nobel Prize winners before him, would not go through the rigmarole of interviews by international journalists, Norwegian university students etc., no doubt terribly taxing.

To save face, Ethiopians were told (Fana ,Amharic) only about he speaking to attendants in the Oslo City Hall, following which he would meet Norway’s prime minister and the country’s king. The rest of the ‘news item’ in that piece is mere iteration of what the Nobel Committee has already stated in selecting him as the 2019 winner of its peace award. 

During his current visit, Special Rapporteur David Kaye is expected to meet government officials, representatives from the judiciary, journalists and representatives from civil society in Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar. If by any chance, he is not to get to discuss with eye to eye contact with the Nobel laureate, his mission is hardly complete.

It seems it may be in full awareness of its importance that Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch Laetitia Bader offers the following advice to Ethiopia and its officials:

“The government should take advantage of the special rapporteur’s visit to commit to ending the prosecution of journalists. While the government has said it would repeal the restrictive 2009 anti-terrorism law, authorities continue to detain journalists under the law’s provisions, because a replacement law is still under review in parliament. Journalists who previously resorted to self-censorship should feel safe to criticize government policies and actions.”

Already on October 9, 2019, in advance of his visit to point out the pitfalls of hate speech law, David Kaye offered his mind to the Ethiopian Government as pertains to its planned Hate Speech Law.  In that regard, in a report, which has been circulated  to member States by the UN Secretary-General already in early October as an official United Nations report (A/74/486), he states:

“Under international human rights law, the limitation of hate speech seems to demand a reconciliation of two sets of values: democratic society’s requirements to allow open debate and individual autonomy and development with the also compelling obligation to prevent attacks on vulnerable communities and ensure the equal and non-discriminatory participation of all individuals in public life.  Governments often exploit the resulting uncertainty to threaten legitimate expression, such as political dissent and criticism or religious disagreement. However, the freedom of expression, the rights to equality and life and the obligation of non-discrimination are mutually reinforcing; human rights law permits States and companies to focus on protecting and promoting the speech of all, especially those whose rights are often at risk, while also addressing the public and private discrimination that undermines the enjoyment of all rights.”

A point deserving a mention at this point is about the Abiy Administration’s double standard; it has been systematically imposing limits on freedom of opinion and speech, even without this law in place.

Of late, this has become the country’s reality, with a prime minister ‘oblivious’ of his pledge to the Ethiopian people.  This relapse to old TPLF habits for this administration and, among others, systematically blocking blogs in Ethiopia represents the height of hypocrisy, shining early light on the dangers, among others, endangering integrity of the country’s forthcoming election in May 2020.

The above stands in contrast to the prime minister’s oft stated vows to hold credible election, first pronounced at the end of March 2019 during his “declaration of war” against Eskinder Nega. Recall that Eskinder Nega favours Addis Abeba to always remain Ethiopia’s capital city, i.e., to belong to all Ethiopians, not a particular group, as many members of Abiy Ahmed’s ruling the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and the other Oromo extremists’ claim.

While this is the evolving frightening situation in the country, the prime minister declares from his palace, without any restraint:

“Yes, there are problems and challenges related to peace and rule of law. However, a legitimate government can only come through the process of national poll…On our part, as a government, we will curtail the activities of trigger-crazy old-fashioned politicians who instigate and profit from violent conflicts. We have been building efficient institutions of peace, and independent law enforcement agencies tasked to ensure peace and rule of law.’’ 

Is that why we have all these problems, conflicts and sort of things attributable to the arrogance of power?

The administration’s dumb ‘freedom is here now and freedom is not here now game’ needs to end; it must end now!

The freedoms of citizens, the Ethiopian state has for long been badly abusive of and injurious. It should no longer be allowed to deprive citizens of their right to think and speak freely again. Failure of the international community in this would not only be terrible but also disastrous. For Ethiopians this comes, as they look forward and hope they have something for which they have paid dearly. It should not be stolen in broad daylight.

It is very troubling that Ethiopians should today feel insecure under the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy, his administration’s heavy handedness and facilitation of a ‘new generation of repressions’ needs to be curbed, with the state subjecting itself to the rule of law.

 

Conclusion

David Kaye’s mission not being able to decode what is building up in Ethiopia may end up in failure. The Abiy Ahmed’s administration is strongly convinced of its power to outsmart everyone else, and thus, it could do whatever it wants. 

To fall for a power that could slip into dictatorship in Ethiopia would discourage those starving for a democratic future and better days for Ethiopia. This will also make despondent the peoples of our sub-region that for long have known nothing better than strongmen in power and inexorable repressions. 

 

 

 

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