22 February 2014

Ethiopia: Seeking Practical Solutions to Justice Sector Shortcomings

Entitled "The National Justice Sector, Justice and Good Governance Consultative Forum", the dialogue featured senior federal and regional government officials as well as justice sector actors. Such a forum should be encouraged in view of the manifold benefits it has for the country. If the forum is to result in concrete solutions, however, it must address issues of critical importance.

The assessment report presented at the forum raised both positive accomplishments and shortcomings besetting the justice system. One of the major themes of the dialogue--whether the justice system is characterized by good governance or otherwise--needs to be examined in depth. Violations of human rights and the mistreatment of prisoners in correction facilities, delays in the delivery of justice, and acts which encroach into the independence of the judiciary were raised as some of the main problems of the justice system.

The constitution of Ethiopia clearly provides that the judiciary shall be free from any interference and that judges must exercise their functions in full independence. But is the judiciary allowed to enjoy the independence it is guaranteed under the constitution? Is it really free from the interference or influence of the executive branch of the government that it is widely reported to be under? Isn't it prone to corruption and other illegal practices? The answer to these questions is unequivocally in the affirmative. Needless to say it is preferable to exert a concerted effort towards finding a panacea for the problems instead of carping on them endlessly.

There are a host of challenges which test the realization of the Ethiopian peoples' aspiration for justice and good governance. The justice system can be duly accessible to all only when favoritism, illegality and anti-democratic tendencies are done away with. In particular the problems attending the major players of the justice system have to be identified with the aim of seeking lasting solutions for them.

Do the police abide by the obligations which the constitution and other subsidiary laws impose on them when it comes to arresting and questioning suspects? Do they respect the right of arrested persons to be brought immediately to court immediately after they are arrested and not to be subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment while in custody? Don't they jail innocent citizens for extortion purposes? The public has been voicing complaints over the years that the police are guilty of systematic and widespread abuse of power. Such a state of affairs not only robs the government of its credibility, but also tends to sully the country's image on the international stage. Hence, it is imperative to deal firmly with the failings of the police.

Similar questions can be asked of prosecutors as well. Aren't there prosecutors who institute untenable charges and yet fail to bring to court those who clearly committed crimes? Do they make an effort to sift relieve the work load of courts by facilitating the amicable settlement of disputes out of court or do they pass on every case that comes along their way to courts without sifting them? Do they do their part to ensure the rights of persons who have been arrested or do they turn a blind eye to the abuses inmates face and thereby become accessories? Do they possess the capacity to carry out their duties in accordance with the law despite pressure to the contrary or do they cave in to the pressure and become complicit in miscarriage of justice? Complaints also abound in this area throughout the country. No time should be wasted in tackling them head on.

Are judges solely guided by the law when they hand down decisions? Aren't there some among their ranks who, for personal gain or other reasons, subvert the course of justice and cause many to bemoan their fate? There is no denying serious problems exist in this regard. This necessitates an immediate action to determine their root cause and take the necessary corrective measures. Admittedly, all is not doom and gloom with the justice sector in Ethiopia. Nonetheless, addressing the core challenges confronting the sector, which are manifested by human rights violations, the prevalence of bad governance, the uncertainty of citizens about their safety, etc, so that citizens enjoy greater access to justice cannot be deferred for tomorrow. The constant reference by people everywhere to the saying, "Justice delayed is justice denied" is a call for the removal of the impediments to the exercise of this fundamental right.

Presently the justice sector is reportedly undertaking different reform initiatives. Plans are afoot to render the justice sector an epitome of good governance. A smattering of independent and efficient judges are coming to the fore. Efforts are under way to attack the backlog of cases congesting courts' dockets. And courts are moving into modern buildings and beginning to use information technology to improve their services. While these encouraging deeds should be acknowledged, acts which cast a cloud over the credibility of the judiciary have to be fought resolutely.

Generally speaking Ethiopia can be a stable and peaceful place which its citizens are proud of, accelerate its growth and prosperity as well as improve its image and speak with authority on both the continental and international stage only when the independence of the judiciary and law enforcement organs is assured. Therefore, it is imperative that all stakeholders go beyond lamenting about the travails of the justice sector and take practical steps to redress them. The sooner the better!

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