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The Human Rights Agenda in Ethiopia: Anything done in the name of reform cannot be a human rights violation!

The Human Rights Agenda in Ethiopia: Anything done in the name of reform cannot be a human rights violation!


By Elias Dawit  Sep 15, 2019



The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundational document of our international body of human rights law, emerged out of the horrors of fascism and the holocaust. These events in the early part of the twentieth century illustrated the danger of leaving human rights to the exclusive prerogative of the sovereign state.


Yet, all too often the human rights community gets it wrong. In an extraordinarily candid article by the well known human rights advocate Alex de Walle, he writes: “The power to accuse someone of a grave crime on the basis of hearsay is a heady one. I have done it, and I faced the consequences of being wrong.””

In this article, de Waal presents his own narrative of human rights advocacy punctuated by personal self-criticism that exposes the dangers of human rights activism. It is not a science ruled by incontrovertible, evidence-based facts. Human rights activism is carried out by people who make judgements, take sides and render verdicts through a prism of institutional agendas.

He concludes, “ The fundamental tensions of human rights activism have not changed. The moral cogency of a human rights narrative is compelling but partial: it is incomplete and it takes sides.”

And in taking sides, the human rights organization can stay silent while human rights violations abound—but the perpetrator is excused because the human rights organization has constructed a different narrative that casts the perpetrator as a reformer and not an abuser. The narrative must be maintained because, says de Waal, In the West, “we like morality plays with clearly identified heroes and villains, in which we can play the role of savior.”

This is happening today in Ethiopia. The old narrative perpetuated by the human rights community cast the villain as Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his party, the TPLF. In that narrative, the Prime Minister and his party ruled the country through murder, detention and torture—even denying the people food during periods of food insecurity.

This is not the case for the new Prime Minister. The hero is the new government led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed—labelled a “reformer”—and the savior is the United States, steadily making its way into the power vacuum created by Prime Minister Hailemariam and steered by the American evangelical movement.

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Let’s take a look at two Human Rights Watch reports from 2005 (for 2004) and 2019 (for 2018).

In 2004, the year leading up to the 2005 elections, Ethiopia experienced the most open political space in its history. Opposition political parties across the countries campaigned and mobilized supporters. The media hosted debates between the government and opposition party leaders on television and radio. The number of private newspapers multiplied.


Yet, during that same year, Human Rights Watch accused the government of murder, torture and inappropriately responding to a food security crisis.

“The Ethiopian government continues to deny many of its citizens’ basic human rights. Police and security forces have harassed, illegally detained, tortured, and in some cases, killed members of the political opposition, demonstrators and suspected insurgents. The government has also continued its efforts to muzzle the private press through the use of criminal sanctions and other forms of intimidation.”

“Ethiopia is affected by chronic food security problems, but the government’s attempts to address the issue through a massive resettlement program appear to be courting humanitarian disaster in some areas.”

Human Rights Watch 2004

In September 2018, despite having opened up the prisons upon taking power, Prime Minister Abiy rounded up thousands of young people and detained them for months without being charged—most of them were picked up from the tea shops and hookah bars throughout the capital city.

Amnesty International did report on these mass arrests saying, “The majority of people were arrested for perceived offences which are not recognized criminal offences under international law, such as smoking shisha or consuming khat. They must be either charged with a recognizable criminal offence or released. Those arrested for taking part in protests on the recent ethnic clashes must all be released immediately and unconditionally.”

However, Amnesty’s outrage was tempered by adding praise to Prime Minister Abiy. According to the Amnesty Report,While the Ethiopian authorities have in recent months made a commendable attempt to empty the country’s prisons of arbitrary detainees, they must not fill them up again by arbitrarily arresting and detaining more people without charge. The government must renew its commitment to a new era of respecting and upholding human rights.”

Ethiopia hosts the largest number of internally displaced people in the world—topping over three million. Why are they displaced? Ethnic violence in the country has reached staggering proportions. The violence is fueled by hate speech and invective that is not only tolerated but perpetuated by the country’s leadership. The government announced a new law on hate speech. Yet, it is government officials and the newly returned political opposition who regularly—and loudly—promote the hate speech that fuels ethnic tensions around the country. The massive internal displacement is a direct result of the so-called “opening of political space”—that gives government officials and opposition figures the microphone to amplify messages of hate and vengeance.

And where are the human rights organizations? In the 2019 Human Rights Report released by Human Rights Watch, the country summary on Ethiopia recounts past allegations against the EPRDF, followed by Prime Minister Abiy’s much-rehearsed promises of reform. There is no mention of the government’s targeting of Tigrayan former officials who were arrested and imprisoned for charges related to their ethnicity yet phantasmagorically manufactured into charges of corruption. Why are General Kinfe and Bereket Simon not identified as “prisoners of conscience” by the human rights community? Why are the threats against Tigray—such as the one announced by the head of the Supreme Court—not formally admonished by the human rights activists?

Instead, human rights organizations legitimize the attacks against former government officials from Tigray and the Tigrayan community writ large with every utterance of Prime Minister Abiy’s ephemeral “reform agenda”. The breakdown in law and order, the promotion of hate speech, the ethnic violence at the root of massive displacement, the unconstitutionality of certain policy decisions and the general implosion of the country is glossed over with platitudes of the Prime Minister “introducing political reforms.”

“After years of widespread protests against government policies and brutal security force repression, a series of human rights reforms were ushered in after Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in April 2018. The government released thousands of political prisoners from detention, admitted that security forces relied on torture, committed to legal reforms of repressive laws and introduced numerous other reforms. At the same time, there has been a significant break down in law and order in parts of Ethiopia amidst escalating ethnic tensions that has resulted in significant numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Ethiopia’s national elections are scheduled for May 2020.”


Human Rights Watch 2019


Alex de Waal’s critique of human rights activism is all here: contrasting human rights narratives—partial, incomplete and taking sides—that identify a hero and a villain in which external actors take on the role of the savior.


The human rights narrative being promoted today serves a political agenda drafted by Western powers led by the United States and abetted by allies interested in the economic rewards of a country blessed with a wealth of natural resources and geostrategic importance. However, these Western powers have made a serious and irrevocable miscalculation of leadership. The current Prime Minister does not have the leadership skills to contain the narcissistic power grab of the opposition parties, to abide by the Constitution, or to protect the sovereignty so jealously guarded by the Ethiopian people for centuries.


 The seriousness of this miscalculation cannot be overstated. The demons that have survived beneath the surface of Ethiopia have been unleashed and the checks and balances of containment have been dissolved. The contradictions of the human rights community expose the external political actors that pull the strings of a state facing collapse and a people facing catastrophe.


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