Thursday, April 18, 2024

Towards prompt termination of Amhara state of emergency

The return to relative calm of the major cities in the Amhara region of Ethiopia after weeks of deadly violence is welcome news for a country that was teetering on the edge of a destructive internecine conflict just days ago. The unrest in the second largest region of the country prompted the declaration of a six-month state of emergency by the federal government a fortnight ago, which Parliament approved by a majority vote ten days later after a heated debate, with the stated goal of restoring law and order. The government said it was compelled to adopt this extreme measure at the request of the Amhara regional government following weeks of clashes between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF) and “armed extremist groups in the region which posed an increasing threat to public security, endangered the constitutional order, and were causing significant economic damage”. The violence has resulted in an unknown number of casualties and the destruction of both public and private properties, forced thousands to flee their homes, and disrupted transportation services.

Citing previous experience, many contend that the suspension of fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution while the state of emergency is in effect and the sweeping rights it bestows on the government are apt to lead to rights violations. True, there are circumstances where the government may discharge its responsibility to preserve Ethiopia’s peace and sovereignty as well as to maintain public security, law and order solely through measures that exempt it from abiding by restrictions curtailing its powers. Nevertheless, as local and international human rights defenders argue, this does not absolve it of the duty to adhere to the principles of necessity, proportionality, and non-discrimination in accordance with its legal obligations under the constitution and the international instruments it has ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As such it’s incumbent on it to see to it that innocent citizens do not become victims of abuse of power at the hands of law enforcement and security personnel as they implement the state of emergency.

The constitution has a safeguard mechanism that is intended to prevent such a specter from coming to pass. It mandates the establishment of a seven-member strong State of Emergency Inquiry Board which, among others, is required to make public within one month the names of all individuals arrested on account of the state of emergency together with the reasons for their arrest. The Board is also obligated to investigate if any measure taken during the state of emergency is inhumane, recommend to the Prime Minister or to the Council of Ministers to take corrective measures if it finds any case of inhumane treatment and ensure that the perpetrators of such acts are prosecuted. Though the powers given to the Board can help bring the individuals or organizations culpable of violating the acts prohibited during the statement of emergency, they will not have the desired deterrence value if it fails to exercise them without impartially.

The Board constituted by the House as it declared the state of emergency has already begun to carry out its functions and informed the public following a visit to detention facilities in the capital Addis Ababa that the suspects arrested under the state of emergency are being treated properly. It said it has determined that the suspects are being housed in suitable rooms and allowed to keep in touch with family members through the phone, adding it will expand its visit to the Amhara region and publicize the results of its probe into allegations of improper imprisonment. The creation of the Board, however, has not prevented rights organizations from urging the authorities to grant independent investigators and media unfettered access to the Amhara region to probe alleged violations under the state of emergency. Time will tell if the purported violations really took place or not.

The announcement by the federal and the Amhara regional governments that the Amhara region is gradually returning to a state of normalcy has elicited calls for the state of emergency to be cut short. While any decision in this regard depends on how things play out on the ground, the commencement of steps to defuse the situation and initiate concrete political processes can go a long way toward addressing  the simmering discontent that precipitated the unrest in the Amhara region in a peaceful and speedy manner. As the responsible thing to do to avert the prospect of an unending cycle of violence in the region and beyond, every effort needs to be made to bring about the conditions that justify the termination of the state of emergency within the shortest possible time through the agency of all stakeholders. Otherwise, the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and destruction of physical infrastructure, whose rebuilding is estimated to cost up to USD 29 billion, during the two-year war in northern Ethiopia that ended just nine months ago will pale in comparison to the horrendous toll the continued instability in the Amhara region is bound to exact.

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