Thursday, February 9, 2023

Whither the rule of law?

This paper has consistently championed the imperative to uphold the rule of law in Ethiopia. The rule of law is a system on which any civilized society stands. As the ultimate guarantee for the very survival of a nation and its people, it’s always important to urge respect for it. There can be no peace, stability, justice, development or prosperity without the rule of law. It’s when each and every Ethiopian abides by the rule of law that citizens will come to truly believe in the principle of equality before the law. If the rule of law is non-existent or not duly observed and if criminals can do whatever they please and terrorize the innocent, the trust that citizens should have in the law will be eroded and eventually completely lost. Such a loss of confidence in the law is apt to pose a serious threat to national security.

Over the past five years or so, the rule of law has been subjected to an onslaught of attack in Ethiopia. During this period the country has witnessed a blatant disregard for one of the pillars of the rule of law, namely ensuring the security of persons and property. Security is one of the defining aspects of any rule of law society and is a fundamental function of the state. It is also a precondition for the realization of the rights and freedoms that the rule of law seeks to advance. The plethora of intercommunal conflicts that had occurred, on average, once a week across different parts of the nation since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power in April 2018 have resulted in the death of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, the displacement of millions more from their homes as well as the destruction of both private and public properties running into billions of birr. Consequently, many say Ethiopia is flirting dangerously with disintegration and as such needs to step back from the brink by upholding the rule of law. Though this obligation primarily rests with the government, each and every citizen owes a solemn duty towards this end.

While there abound instances constituting an affront to the rule of law, a recent episode has shocked the conscience of the public. At the beginning of the week the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) expressed alarm over and condemned in the “strongest terms” what it described as the public parading and execution of a suspected criminal in Dembi Dolo town, located some 625 km west of Addis Ababa in the Kelam Wollega Zone of the Oromia region. Officials of the Oromia region claim he was a member of “Aba Torbe”—a clandestine assassin group affiliated with the banned Oromo Liberation Army—which was recently designated as a terror group by Parliament. He was allegedly responsible for the killing a week ago of a journalist employed by the Oromia state media. Several eyewitnesses have said the suspect was executed by security forces in the city’s square. Although the authorities have acknowledged that he was killed when he was in their custody, they have strenuously denied it was carried out in public. The killing has drawn widespread condemnation and a call for an immediate investigation of the incident.

The manner in which the suspect was killed is a clear violation of a foundational principle of the rule of law that legal matters ought to be handled according to established rules and principles and that the state must respect the fundamental rights it owes to a person. In a clear affirmation of this principle the Ethiopian constitution states that every person has the inviolable and inalienable right to life and may not be deprived of his life except as a punishment for a serious criminal offence determined by law. The international instruments adopted by Ethiopia, in conformity with which the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in constitution must be interpreted, also recognize this right. For instance, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) all provide that every human being has the inherent right to life and may not be arbitrarily deprived of this right. No matter what crime the suspect may have committed, therefore, the authorities should not have taken the law into their own hands and acted like judge, jury and executioner. Their indefensible action is tantamount to vigilante justice and a recipe for anarchy.

The rule of law is instrumental in ensuring that the government and its officials and agents as well as individuals and private entities act transparently and are held accountable under the law, everyone is equal before the law, and fundamental human and democratic rights are protected. When the rule of law is respected the institutions of democracy and civil society organizations will thrive, thereby strengthening the nascent democratization process underway in Ethiopia. Engaging in any act which derails the country off this course is a path that jeopardizes the national and public interests. The Dembi Dolo killing stands a warning that Ethiopia can ill afford to fail to uphold the rule of law!

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