Friday, February 23, 2024

Nipping intolerance in the bud

The track record of successive Ethiopian governments on achieving the lofty promises they make to the public has always left a lot to be desired. While the raft of challenges that have perennially confronted Ethiopia understandably prevented them from delivering on everything they pledged, they are proficient at extolling their “feats” but making little of or offering excuses for their failures. They are also adept at mollifying public resentment by acknowledging the prevalence of bad governance, corruption and all manners of injustices without actually doing something tangible to address them. The ruling Prosperity Party (PP)-led government has not fared better. Unless it learns from the mistakes of governments which preceded it and reforms the errors of its way, it is bound to fritter away the political capital that enabled it to win the last round of general elections held in 2021.

One of the key areas where the present government has continued its predecessors’ tradition of not suiting its word to action is according to fundamental human rights. The 1994 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. In its chapter dealing with fundamental rights and freedoms, it guarantees such basic freedoms as the rights to life, the security of person, liberty and protection against cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment as well as the right of thought, opinion and expression. It’s the current state of the latter freedoms that this editorial will focus on.

The constitutional provision which enshrines the right of expression, namely Article 29, is virtually a verbatim copy of a similar provision of international human rights instruments Ethiopia has adopted, namely the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  The article stipulates that everyone has the right to freedom of expression without any interference. It goes on to declare that this right includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any media of his choice. However, the enjoyment of this fundamental right has been hobbled by different pieces of legislations and administrative practices. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and various other human rights organizations have published numerous reports affirming that freedom of thought and expression continues to be assaulted at the hand of the security apparatus, including the police.

This week the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission issued a statement in which it threatened to ramp up the ramp up measures against individuals it blamed for slandering its reputation. It noted that it had implemented institutional reforms that had led to the improvement of the treatment of suspects and earned it both domestic and international acclaim. It said individuals whose identity was publicized on suspicion of being involved in terrorism have falsely accused it of subjecting other suspects in custody on similar charges to inhuman treatment with intent to derail the investigation it was conducting into them. While the Commission has the right to defend itself against what it deems to be libelous assertions, the tone of its statement suggests that it does not tolerate any form of criticism. This imperils the unfettered exercise of the cherished right of freedom of expression and threatens to roll back the modicum of progress that was made that was made following the ascension of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) to power in April 2018.

Law enforcement organs ought to comport themselves consistent with the dictum that all persons held in custody or facing criminal prosecution have the right to treatments respecting their human dignity as well as to be presumed until proven guilty according to law. The maltreatment of suspects must never be rationalized irrespective of the severity or atrociousness of the crimes they are suspected of. As upholding the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution—the social contract by which citizens and the government are governed—is paramount in assuring the very survival of Ethiopia, perpetrating transgressions in the name of enforcing the law should not be countenanced. As such the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission must take seriously any claim that it violated the rights of detainees instead of striking an aggressive tone as it carries out the solemn responsibilities entrusted to it. The increasing intolerance it is displaying to allegations which do not show it in a favorable light does not bode well for freedom of expression and thus must be nipped in the bud before it gets out of hand.    

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