I am grateful to the Government of Ethiopia for inviting me not once, but twice to this remarkable country during my term as High Commissioner. Inviting a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights once already shows that a Government is willing to openly discuss the human rights challenges in the country. Inviting me twice demonstrates real sincerity and is very encouraging indeed.
During my last visit in May 2017, I had listened attentively to many voices – Government, opposition, civil society and detainees at the Kilinto remand centre. I found much to praise but also gave a frank assessment of the human rights issues and challenges in Ethiopia and called for my Office to be given access to Oromia and Amhara, the two regions most affected by the protests, many of which were suppressed violently.
I am encouraged that the Government viewed my initial visit in the constructive, friendly spirit it was intended to convey. This is certainly not always the case with all States. So when I received an invitation to conduct a follow-up mission, which included visiting the Oromia region, I accepted.
In all my meetings – in the Oromia region and in Addis Ababa – I heard clear expressions of optimism and hope that the new Government, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed would deliver on the heartening and inspiring speeches he has made during his first three weeks in office. We heard of the Prime Minister’s recognition of “the need to address existing inequities that led to recent unrest”, that “democracy cannot be realised in the absence of rights – be it civil or economic rights” and that the “right of people to express opinions, rights of people to organise themselves and engage in effective dialogue and participate in the governance system is inherent in our humanity…not for any government to bestow…as it sees fit.”
I welcome the release of a large number of people, including bloggers, political opponents and others who had been detained in relation to their participation in protests and their criticism of the Government. I was fortunate enough to listen to a number of them in private during this visit.
There was tremendous hope, but also anxiety. One former political detainee said: “we have repeatedly been victims of broken promises.” Ethiopians, young and old, women and men, expressed their eagerness to work constructively with the Government to ensure that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s vision is realised, to ensure that the momentum is sustained.
In the Oromia region last Monday, I met with the regional authorities and the traditional leaders, the Aba Gadas. While Government representatives accompanied me and my team during all the meetings, I was struck by the frank and robust expression of grievances by the Aba Gadas.
The Aba Gadas too spoke of their hopes of working with the new Government to resolve longstanding human rights issues in the region. They spoke about how they will continue to push for the truth to be told about what has happened over the past few years, including during protests where people were killed. They demanded investigations and accountability for excessive use of force by the authorities. They expressed their desire for justice and human rights for all Ethiopians and for their voices to be heard without fear of reprisal.
I thank the Government for facilitating this initial interaction with the Aba Gadas and regional authorities in the Oromo region. I look forward to further access for the UN Human Rights Office into the Oromo and Amhara regions so that my colleagues are able to conduct more in-depth conversations with a variety of people. This will enable us to better assess the human rights situation, assist the Government in widening the democratic space and in efforts to ensure accountability for human rights violations. The expectations of meaningful accountability for alleged serious human rights violations must not be allowed to fester.
I was also impressed with the articulate expression of human rights demands by students at Addis Ababa University and others. Civil society representatives, bloggers, religious leaders, political opponents raised numerous important human rights issues with me. They called for further releases of people detained merely for exercising their rights to freedom of assembly, expression and opinion. While the closure of the Maekelawi detention centre is welcome, there is an expectation that this should foreshadow the closure of other such detention facilities across the country. They also called for the State of Emergency to be lifted, reform of law enforcement authorities, the prison system and judicial reform, pushing for the strengthening of the independence of institutions. They called for an inclusive political dialogue and for all Ethiopians to be able to speak, tweet, blog and protest without the fear of arrest.
We conveyed many of these sentiments to the Prime Minister and a rich discussion ensued. I also met with the Speaker of the House, the head of the Ethiopian National Human Rights Commission, the Deputy Attorney-General and the Minister of Foreign Affairs. While my Office has been working with the Ethiopian National Human Rights Commission, we believe that greater efforts should be invested into making it fully independent.
Yesterday, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and I signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the Regional UN Human Rights Office for East Africa and the Ethiopian Government, which will strengthen our Office’s ability to do human rights work in the country and the region. I welcome the Government’s recognition of the important role the Office can play in helping advance the promotion and protection of human rights. We have already offered our assistance in revising the Charities and Societies Proclamation, the Anti-Terrorism legislation and the Mass Media Laws, which are in desperate need of reform.
Moments of transition are rarely ever smooth. Ethiopia has struggled with a heavy history, but it has the wisdom of a tolerant, vibrant, youthful population to harness. For our part, we will continue to encourage, advise and sometimes lean on the authorities to keep the positive momentum going and to keep translating the inspiring words in the Prime Minister’s inaugural address into action. For our goals should be the same: to ensure that the human rights of all in Ethiopia are fully respected.
We all want to see an Ethiopia with continuous economic development where all people benefit, and where people express their views on public policies, unafraid. In this 70th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when too many leaders risk reversing hard-won human rights gains, we look to Ethiopia to continue to give cause for optimism and hope.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).