Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC)

Ethiopia - Candidacy to the Human Rights Council - Letter to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn

press release

Dear Prime Minister,

We, the undersigned, are a diverse group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from around the world. With elections to the United Nations Human Rights Council quickly approaching, and with Ethiopia standing as a candidate, we are writing to urge your government to demonstrate its commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights.

UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, which established the Human Rights Council, states that members of the Council "shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights" and "fully cooperate with the Council." We believe it is essential that Ethiopia and other candidate states adhere to these criteria. Thus we would like to draw your attention to some key areas where we believe swift and urgent reform could improve human rights conditions in Ethiopia.

Respect the Rights to Freedom of Expression, Assembly, and Association

Ethiopia's constitution and international obligations offer strong protections for freedom of expression, association, and assembly, yet those who seek to exercise these rights face repressive measures ranging from harassment and threats to arbitrary detention and politically motivated prosecution. National, regional, and international NGOs and other independent human rights bodies, including UN special procedures and mechanisms monitoring Ethiopia's treaty obligations, have documented systematic violations of these rights that run counter to Ethiopia's candidacy to the UN Human Rights Council.

We are particularly concerned about the Charities and Societies Proclamation, also known as the "CSO law." This law places excessive restrictions on the work, operations, and funding of independent human rights organizations. Since the CSO law was passed in 2009, the vast majority of independent nongovernmental organizations working on human rights issues in Ethiopia have been forced to discontinue their work, many prominent human rights activists have fled the country, and human rights groups that have attempted to continue their work are struggling to survive due to the funding restrictions contained in the law. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association stated in his May 2012 report to the Human Rights Council, "In Ethiopia where this legislation is in place, out of the 127 associations advocating for human rights active before the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation entered into force, very few reportedly still operate."[1] Two of the most respected independent human rights groups-the Human Rights Council (formerly known as EHRCO) and the Ethiopian Women's Lawyers Association-have had their assets frozen for evidently political reasons by the agency created by the CSO law. Their pursuit of legal relief from the courts has been to no avail.[2]

We remain deeply concerned by the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009, which has also been used to punish perceived critics of the government, particularly journalists. Under the over broad language of the law, peaceful protest and dissent can be considered terrorism, and critical reporting by the media can be construed as "encouraging terrorism." While Ethiopia has legitimate security concerns regarding acts of terrorism, the law has been used to target peaceful speech and political activity, and dozens of journalists and opposition political activists have been arrested and charged under the law. To date, 11 journalists have been convicted of terrorism-related offenses while undertaking their legitimate work as journalists. Many other journalists have fled Ethiopia, with the result that currently there are almost no independent media outlets and publications functioning in the country.[3]

To solidify its commitment to protect and promote human rights, the Ethiopian government should:

  • Follow up on the recent release of some political prisoners by immediately releasing all journalists, opposition members, and others arbitrarily detained or imprisoned for their peaceful expression of their views, notably under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
  • Immediately end all forms of attack and suppression against Ethiopian human rights defenders and civil society organizations.
  • Amend the Charities and Societies Proclamation to bring it in line with the Ethiopian constitution and international human rights standards regarding freedom of association and peaceful assembly.
  • Order, without delay, the release of the frozen assets of the Human Rights Council and the Ethiopian Women's Lawyers Association.
  • Amend the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to bring it into compliance with international human rights law requirements on freedom of expression, association, and assembly and international fair trial standards and best practice.
  • Immediately end all forms of intimidation of journalists, and revoke restrictions that hinder independent media from reporting on events in Ethiopia.

Hold Security Forces to Account

Ethiopia's security forces have committed serious abuses throughout the country that in some cases amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity, most notably in Gambela and Somali regions.

The government's implementation of "villagization" programs in the regions of Gambela, Benishangul-Gumuz, Afar, Somali, and the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples' Region (SNNPR) has led to large-scale forced resettlement, accompanied by arbitrary detentions and mistreatment of individuals in detention. Government security forces have used threats, intimidation, and violence-including some incidents of rape-against people who resist moving. Those who have been forcibly relocated have been moved to unfertile areas that have no or inadequate health facilities, schools, and other basic services. Many have left fields behind and suffered food shortages in their new locations.

In addition to abuses against the populations in the above mentioned regions, Ethiopian security forces have used excessive force against largely peaceful protesters contrary to international standards. Since July 2012, Ethiopian police and other security services have arbitrarily arrested and used excessive force against hundreds of Muslims protesting alleged government interference in religious affairs in Addis Ababa. Once detained, many of these protesters have been denied basic due process rights, including access to legal counsel and being promptly charged.

Torture and other ill-treatment have been widely used by Ethiopia's police, military, and other security forces to obtain confessions or punish a spectrum of perceived dissenters, including university students, members of the political opposition, and alleged supporters of insurgent groups, as well as terrorist suspects. The frequency, ubiquity, and patterns of abuse by agents of the central and state governments indicate systematic mistreatment involving commanding officers, not random activity by rogue soldiers and police officers.

The lack of access for independent domestic and international organizations to Ethiopia's detention facilities renders it nearly impossible to monitor detention centers where torture has been reported, or to determine the number of political prisoners and others arbitrarily detained.

We urge the Ethiopian government to:

  • Stop arbitrary arrests, intimidation and torture and other ill-treatment of political dissidents, peaceful protesters, and residents of regions where the villagization process is underway, and promptly charge or release those who have been arbitrarily detained.
  • Treat all individuals taken into custody humanely and in accordance with international due process standards. Adopt measures to end torture and other ill-treatment.
  • Impartially investigate and prosecute as appropriate government officials and members of the military, police, and other security forces implicated in serious human rights violations, including torture.
  • Strengthen human rights education and training of military and police forces.
  • Allow independent monitors free and unfettered access to federal prisons, police stations, and military detention centers.

Cooperate with the Human Rights Council

UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251 calls for all members of the Human Rights Council to fully cooperate with the Council, including with its special procedures. In this regard, we call on the Ethiopian government to fully cooperate in the following respects:

  • Issue without delay a standing invitation to all UN special procedures mandate-holders.
  • Promptly facilitate visits by the special rapporteurs on freedom of expression (requested in 2002 and again in 2005), freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (requested in 2011), torture (requested in 2005, 2007, and again in 2010), freedom of religion (requested in 2006), the right to food (requested in 2008), extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions (requested in 2008), and education, as well as by the independent expert on foreign debt (requested in 2006, 2007, and again in 2011)-none of whom have been allowed to visit the country to date.
  • Promptly facilitate a visit by the Working Group on arbitrary detention, which submitted a request to visit in 2005, 2007, and again in 2009, but which has not yet been allowed to visit the country.
  • Swiftly implement all accepted recommendations from Ethiopia's 2010 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and reconsider important recommendations it rejected during the 2010 UPR.

The Human Rights Council election provides an important moment for Ethiopia to demonstrate an enhanced commitment to addressing human rights concerns. We appreciate your prompt consideration of those concerns mentioned in this letter.

With highest regards,

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)

Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)

CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP)

Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)

Human Rights Watch (HRW)

[1]Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, A/HRC/20/27, May 21, 2012, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session20/A.HRC.20.27_En.pdf.PDF.

[2]"Supreme court Ruling Marks a Further Erosion of Human Rights Work," Human Rights Watch news release, October 19, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/10/19/ehtiopia-supreme-court-ruling-marks-further-erosion-human-rights-work.

[3]"Terrorism Law Used to Crush Free Speech," Human Rights Watch news release, June 27, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/06/27/ethiopia-terrorism-law-used-crush-free-speech.

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