Friday, April 19, 2024

Arresting the backslide in according respect for fundamental rights

The 1994 Ethiopian constitution is generally recognized as enshrining fundamental rights and freedoms that are internationally recognized as well. It contains provisions which virtually are verbatim copies of similar rights laid out in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as well as other international instruments Ethiopia has adopted.  Article 10 of the constitution explicitly guarantees respect for the human and democratic rights of citizens and peoples in acknowledgment of the principle that human rights and freedoms, emanating from the nature of mankind, are inviolable and inalienable. Abiding by the constitution—the supreme law of the land—is inarguably vital to ensuring peace, stability, development and the rule of law. If citizens are to go about their daily business peacefully under the protection of the law and participate fully in the affairs of their country, if the conduct of affairs of government is to be transparent, if any public official or an elected representative is to be accountable for any failure in official duties, and if the resources of the nation are to be equitably utilized, there is no choice but to obey the constitution both to its letter and in its spirit.

As a political document which represents a social contract among citizens of Ethiopia, the constitution is pivotal to the functioning of the Ethiopian society as a cohesive entity. In its chapter dealing with fundamental rights and freedoms, it guarantees the rights to life, the security of person, liberty and protection against cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. It also cherishes the rights to honor and reputation, to equality, to privacy as well as the right of thought, opinion and expression, of assembly, demonstration and petition, and of nationality. Likewise, it affords protection to freedom of religion, belief, opinion, association and movement. Furthermore, it enshrines the rights to access to justice, to vote and to be elected and other political, economic and social rights.

Despite the progressiveness of the constitution, Ethiopia’s human rights track record during the close to thirty years it has been in force has been poor. Though the government is particularly responsible for enforcing the constitution, its failure to give full effect to fundamental rights and freedoms have engendered widespread discontent. It has also been culpable of closing off the primary outlets by which the public can vent its frustration, namely the state-owned media, to the expression of views which are critical of it and using them solely as a means to extol its successes. Aside from the government, some opposition parties, activists and irregular forces have engaged in acts flouting the hallowed rights that citizens enjoy under the constitution. All these have prompted scores of deadly violent episodes that have resulted in the loss of life, bodily injury, displacement, and the destruction of property.

This said, the series of political reforms the administration of Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed (PhD) undertook soon after his ascension to power in April 2018 inspired hope in Ethiopians that their country’s poor human rights record was relegated to the past. The release of political prisoners, the return of exiled political leaders and journalists to Ethiopia, and the annulment of draconian laws that constricted the enjoyment of basic freedoms led citizens to believe that the worst days were over. The democratic gains these measures represented proved to be short-lived though. The country’s institutions of democracy—the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, the Office of the Ombudsman, and the National Electoral Board—local rights advocates and international human rights bodies have all issued damning reports time and again affirming that egregious violations of constitutionally protected rights continued to be rife even after Prime Minster Abiy came to office. This has reinforced the view that the ruling Prosperity Party (PP) has no intention of forsaking the ways of its predecessors and that old habits die hard.

The administration of Prime Minister Abiy is fond of offering the short duration of its reign as a justification to counter criticisms that it has not honored the promises it made to Ethiopians that the democratic reforms it initiated would be deepened, arguing it takes a long time for democracy to take root in a country like Ethiopia where it has never been practiced. While this defense may have earned the administration a degree of latitude for some time, it is no longer acceptable given it should have been able to register tangible results in the over five years it has had to date to deliver on its pledges. As Ethiopia’s human rights record worsens after a brief improvement, it’s not too late for the government to do everything possible to do in its power to build on the reform it instituted. That is why it’s incumbent on it to ditch the habits that proved to be the demise of its predecessors and ensure that the modicum of progress the nation made in according respect for fundamental rights are not reversed.

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