Daniel Bekele (PhD)
Daniel Bekele (PhD) is the Chief Commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). A lawyer, he was previously with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Action Aid and was the Senior Director for Africa Advocacy, based in New York City, where he also served one time as its Executive Director of its African Division. He earned his PhD from Oxford University in International law and the winner of the 2121 German Africa Prize. Elias Tegen of The Reporter has sat down with him to discuss a range of issues including the prize the condition of the human rights in Ethiopia, on violations of the human rights and on how the commission is ever evolving and becoming an independent institution. Excerpts.
The Reporter: Two weeks ago, you won this year’s German Africa Prize for your contribution in defending human rights. How did it make you feel? How has it inspired you in the work you are doing now and in the future?
Daniel Bekele (PhD): So the German Africa Foundation is an organization found in Germany that has been giving recognition and awards annually to outstanding professionals in Africa for the past 30 years. I am very glad that the organization gave recognition to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). It is nice to get the recognition for the work we have done and for the little success we have had, but we still have a lot more to do. We understand that we are in the beginning steps to build a strong, independent, and an impartial national human rights institution that can effectively enforce human rights throughout the country. We know that a lot remains to be done. With regards to this, I accept the recognition with gratitude and a humble spirit.
A lot of people have expressed their feelings about the prize, has it made any impact on your organization? And how will it affect your future work?
This kind of recognition not only encourages my colleagues and me, but also anyone involved in the field of human rights implementation in the country. We do not do our work for awards and for recognition, however it does encourage workers and motivates other people. It also highlights our organization and the work it does, hence in that aspect, the award was a good thing.
The EHRC has been gaining popularity and credibility both at home and internationally in recent years. In the past, institutions in Ethiopia did not have this kind of credibility and acceptance. Now, however, the institution is being considered independent, free and competent for human rights work, both locally and internationally. It is known that we have recently started working in collaboration with the United Nations (UN). All of this indicates that the credibility of the institution amongst the international community, in particular, is improving and increasing.
Many countries around the world have supported our joint investigation mission with the UN. Of course, despite opposition from some, it has gained acceptance amongst most people especially in governments and organizations like the United Nations Security Councils (UNSC), Europe, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom (UK), and majority of Ethiopia’s allies.
The basis of all this is the acceptance of the Commission as an independent and competent institution. So I think the latest German Africa Award is another manifestation of that.
What was the institution looks like when you first joined the Commission and how do you compare the current status of the institution with the previous one?
It has been almost three years since I joined the Commission, and there have been changes. The previous state of the Commission was a reflection of the political situation of the time. Not only the EHRC, but also all other institutions were not free from the political influence of the government. The EHRC was an institution in a similar situation, but is also an organization that has been working to promote human rights to the best of its ability.
The institutional capacity, however, was compromised since the government has a political power over it; the government was unable to mobilize qualified people for the job. The working skills and professional capacity required for the job were not well developed and the institution was not in a position to work not only freely, but also efficiently. Therefore, we have made efforts to make fundamental changes in the institution.
With this new structure and formation, we have started to attract qualified individuals for the job, trained the existing staff, developing new strategic plans, building capacity, implementing new strategies, and using technology. I mean institution building, however, building an institution is not a short-term project and will not be completed in two years. So, what we have achieved so far is measured in line with laying the groundwork. We are launching programs that were not properly practiced previously such as human rights education, women’s and children’s rights, new human rights issues that require a due attention, namely rights related to refugee, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), people with disabilities, and the elderly.
On the other hand, due to the current political crisis in our country, conflicts, accidents, deaths, displacement and destruction are resulting serious human rights problems and concerns. We are doing our best to address these issues as soon as possible, to improve human rights abuses and to find a lasting solution to the human rights and political crisis.
Starting from organizing the workforce, changes in job responsibilities, wages and the like are among the changes and there were various issues that have been raised during the course of reorganizing the institution. There have been some complaints from the workers of your institution in this regard; can you please walk us through the current situation of the reorganization?
It is true that there is bound to be an impact, in an institution that is going through a fundamental change in structure and organization. It will have an impact on existing employees, on employees’ lives, and on their living conditions. Because the new structure, for example, may not include all existing staff, as we have seen in the case of our institution.
If we were to ask what kind of reorganization is needed to achieve the goals of the institution, how do we deal with this transition since the new structure and formation that we have studied and implemented is not conducive to embracing all the existing staff. We had to study, consult, and find solutions. A lot of care has been taken throughout the process. For example, our commission offers a variety of options for employees who are not part of the new organization and is taking appropriate precautions for employees who have the opportunity to move to another office, or who are resigning voluntarily.
As I understand it, we are in the process of making the change that most workers agree on and support. There may be people who do not like it or oppose the whole process of change and want to disrupt it. So, we are taking all these things as a challenge and we are dealing with them legally and peacefully. We have made good progress; we have laid a good foundation and taken the necessary precautions. We have started to make good staff transfers as legally and as humanly as possible.
As a human rights institution neutrality is one of the most important pillars of the Commission. In this regard, can you describe the commission’s independence and neutrality while conducting it investigations of the alleged human rights violations?
This issue can be seen fro two perspectives, first of all, as I mentioned earlier, the proclamation establishing the commission has laid the legal foundations to ensure the independence and impartiality of the Commission. Which explicitly stated that all commissioners cannot be members of any political party. Previously, the commissioners of the commission were also members of a political party. Now, it helps commissioners who are independent of political influence to come to work.
The second perspective is the selection and appointment of commissioners. The previous system was not free, independent, and participatory and was not the type of system that attracted qualified people for the job. According to the amended proclamation, the criteria that is needed first and foremost is to be professionally trained or experienced professional, and ethical.
Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have also been involved. In the past, members of the House of Peoples’ Representatives largely did the selection of commissioners, and if a single party that controlled the seats controlled the nomination and the selection process too, which had a significant impact on the selection process. However, contrary to the previous system free, participatory, transparent selection of commissioners has now been implemented with the participation of all CSO’s. In addition, one of the measures taken to reduce direct or indirect government interference in the work of the Commission was to ensure the independence of the Commission’s administration, operations, finances, and budget. Therefore, all these amendments give us a legal basis for its neutrality and independence.
There are those who say that your responses to the ongoing human rights violations in the country are sometimes are double standards depending on the situation. For instance, even though the commission has presented various reports and statements on the conflict and human rights violations in the Tigray region, it has been accused of not responding adequately when it came to recent violations in various parts of the Amhara region. What is your response for such allegations?
Of course, we heard such kinds of criticism and we respectfully accept it. But one thing is for sure, our capacity, as an institution has not changed much. We have a very limited capacity to respond for the alleged human rights violations in this very large country of a population of over a hundred million people. We try to work with very limited human and financial resources. We still have a limited capacity to respond to every issue as quickly as we can and to the extent we wanted it to be.
There are many serious human rights problems, such as the tragic loss of life, disability, destruction of property, and displacement related to the conflicts. In fact, there are many issues that have passed unnoticed, especially in the southern region.
To some extent, issues in Tigray, and the Amhara regions, some in the southern part of Ethiopia and Oromia region seem to attract the attention of both local and international media. But especially in the southern region, there are serious human rights violations that have not received much attention. We have not been able to respond to all of this, but we are making great efforts. We have also launched an investigation into the recent clashes in the Tigray region that have spread to the Amhara and Afar regions.
Although we have not yet arrived at a conclusion, we have started some activities, however our activities need to be conducted very carefully and to a certain standard, so it will take time. But to the very least, we have launched an investigation, deploying investigators to the area, and according to our information so far, the human rights violations in the area are serious, that needs an urgent measures. But the whole process of research, discovery, and conclusion takes some time. I cannot say the public concerns are right or wrong but I hope readers will understand that the context in which we work is so limited that we have not been able to work at the desired pace compared with the scale of issues and our limitations of human and financial resources.
While some claim that the commission is an institution free from the influence of the government, others say it is still an institution under the influence of the government. Which one is true?
I am not saying this just for the sake of saying it. I would like to confirm that there is no government influence in our work; there is no government interference in our work. If there were, I would not have accepted and neither would have my colleagues and friends. We do not allow the government to interfere in our work and we do not accept it. But people have opinions. I am not surprised that people are not free from this suspicion, as there is no experience in establishing such institutions in Ethiopia.
Due to its history I am not surprised that they are skeptical. But I hope that issues related to trust, credibility and acceptance would come gradually.
On the other hand, as you can see, our work is sometimes accepted and supported by the government, other times it is criticized by the same government and senior officials that supported and accepted our findings. In the same way, other non-state actors support our work and sometimes criticize it as well. This shows that we only work on the basis of human rights principles and standards, but when others look at our work, especially those in the political world, they see it from a political point of view. As a result, we are sometimes attacked from both the left and the right. But, we will continue to work only on the principles and standards of human rights.
It is known that you hold regular talks and consultations with leaders and representatives of international organizations who come to Ethiopia. It is said that there are sometimes discrepancies in the statements released by these representatives during their visits and after their return to the country. Can you tell us if you have faced conflicting statements after holding talks concerning your Commission in this regard?
The kind of question that is being asked now is something that can happen when talking to government officials. By government officials, I mean the executive branch of government. As you know, the government has an executive branch, a legislature, and a judiciary. There are courts and institutions like ours, independent from the government, institutions that are not part of the executive branch of government.
In the field of international diplomacy, there is the concept of private advocacy and public advocacy. When you meet with different government officials, what you talk about, and what you want to convey in public can be different. This may be the case not only in Ethiopia but also in international diplomacy.
For our part, we work primarily to protect and respect human rights. We are primarily accountable to the Ethiopian people through the House of Representatives. Therefore, we will promote and educate human rights based on the principle of human rights. When there is a violation of human rights, we will report, and take appropriate measures against any human rights violation; we will do this kind of work in the same spirit.
In recent weeks, you have discussed the human rights situation in Ethiopia, with the US Congresswomen Karen Bass and Sarah Jacobs, and African Union High Representative for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo. Can you tell us the point of the discussion?
It is true that there are many visitors who have come to Ethiopia, including those you have mentioned. It is known that there have been a lot of visitors in recent years, especially since the tragic conflict in Ethiopia. The main reason visitors come and discussed with us is to listen to the independent information, analysis, and comments of the Commission.
It is good that they are concerned about Ethiopia. But it should not be forgotten that Ethiopian human rights or political, economic and social problems should be the main concern of Ethiopians.
First of all, we are the ones who are directly involved. However, it is only right that the international community, as well as Ethiopia’s partners, should be concerned about the Ethiopian issue and strive to be part of the solution. In this spirit, it is appropriate to consult and discuss with people, professionals and officials in institutions such as the EHRC.
For this reason, we will discuss our information, opinions, and solutions about issues that need to be addressed, since human rights is primarily concerned with the protection of civilians in times of conflict. So far, I believe that all the conversations I have had with foreign visitors are useful and healthy.
What do you think of the success of the Commission as it stands now?
I believe that the Commission’s activities are well founded and that the government has a strong political will and commitment to move forward with the change in agenda. There is an opportunity to move the process of change forward in Ethiopia. But it is also important to remember that we are facing many challenges and obstacles. It is a serious problem. This cannot be taken lightly. We are facing a very serious human rights challenge in Ethiopia, especially in the context of the conflict. So, despite the challenges and obstacles, I personally still have hope and still believe that we can overcome all the challenges we face and not only with regard to the EHRC, but also strengthen other institutions and create a better situation in Ethiopia.