Befeqadu Hailu, an influential figure in Ethiopia’s human rights and democratization movements, has devoted more than a decade to advocating for change. As a founding member and executive director of the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD), he has consistently addressed societal issues and remains unwavering in his commitment to fostering a transformative impact.
Against the backdrop of revised civil society laws, CARD emerged in 2019 with a clear mission: to bridge the gaps in human rights and democratization efforts. Despite the considerable challenges, the organization has gained recognition as a civil society entity, actively working to promote democratization within the country’s complex political climate.
Befekadu firmly believes that the establishment of a favorable political environment is crucial for Ethiopia’s long-term peace and stability. This encompasses ensuring accountability for all individuals and fostering a vibrant media landscape that encourages open dialogue and transparency.
Recently, Abraham Tekle of The Reporter conversed with Befekadu on various pressing topics, including human rights abuses, the political landscape, ethnic conflicts, and political accountability in Ethiopia.
The Reporter: In your role as a Human Rights activist, what are the prevalent instances of human rights violations you have observed in Ethiopia, and what obstacles have you encountered while advocating for the protection of those rights?
Befeqadu Hailu: The issue of human rights violations in Ethiopia is a serious matter. When discussing human rights, it is important to begin by acknowledging the role and responsibility of the government. The government has the duty to respect, enforce, and fulfill the conditions necessary for others to respect and protect these rights. In the case of Ethiopia, the three branches of the government are primarily responsible for upholding the rights of the people.
Unfortunately, since the political transition in 2018, the situation regarding human rights violations has become more complex. There are ongoing conflicts in many parts of Ethiopia, resulting in continued violations by armed groups and local perpetrators. Mob justice has also become a problem, leading to an increase in civilian deaths and gender-based attacks.
Arrests and mass detentions of people without charge or trial are also common, and instances of torture and other ill-treatment, as well as forced displacements, have spread throughout the country. Furthermore, political killings of civic and political groups have occurred, and limitations on freedom of expression have become severe in recent years.
What’s more, extrajudicial killings are prevalent in areas where security personnel and other armed forces are involved in these violations. Consequently, ethnic biases and the deaths of detainees have emerged as distressing occurrences in the country. The assassination of religious leaders from the “Kereyu” community serves as a stark example.
The situation unfolding in Ethiopia in recent times is grave and unfortunate. However, it is highly likely that numerous cases of abuse remain unreported, exacerbating the gravity of the situation.
As advocates for human rights, we are deeply affected by the severity of these violations. It is disheartening to witness that despite our organization’s efforts to defend human rights, the situation appears to be moving contrary to our expectations.
We had envisioned that the establishment of CARD would foster a conducive environment for carrying out our organizational duties and advocating for governance reforms. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
In response, we have implemented changes to our methods and approach, focusing on addressing violations and abuses stemming from conflicts. To achieve this, we have initiated media advocacy programs aimed at equipping journalists and media organizations with the necessary knowledge and skills to combat disinformation.
Our trainees also practice reporting on sensitive issues during times of conflict, enabling them to adopt a conflict-sensitive approach as part of our broader project reshaping. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that these methodological shifts have only become possible due to the country’s current crisis and the challenges it presents.
How would you characterize the political landscape in Ethiopia? Can the shift of political elites towards employing armed struggle rather than peaceful methods to achieve their objectives be attributed to the limited political space available to them?
Political transitions are inherently complex, and the journey from an authoritarian regime to a democratic society is not easily achieved. Often, the government and political elites attempt to deceive the public by asserting that they are working towards establishing democracy.
In the current political landscape of Ethiopia, various actors are engaged in a competitive struggle to acquire and consolidate power, which unfortunately leads to violence as a means of governance.
Regrettably, our history is not exempt from such challenges, as it lacks a seamless political transition that could have fostered a state of consensus.
Are you implying that political actors have increasingly resorted to armed struggle as the dominant method to achieve their political objectives?
The current focus seems to be primarily on the escalating turbulence, which has become increasingly intertwined with power struggles between different factions within the ruling party and their opposition. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that our country is facing other significant challenges as well.
One major issue is the inadequate management of the transition, which continues to have lasting consequences even after five years. Despite these challenges, there have been some positive developments in Ethiopia.
For instance, a council was established to initiate legal reforms aimed at cultivating a more supportive environment for civic and media activities. Unfortunately, while these reforms are underway, the integrity of the rule of law has been compromised, which is deeply regrettable for our nation.
Although the media law prohibits the investigation and detention of journalists for carrying out their professional duties, journalists are still being targeted based on their reports. This contradicts the intended purpose of the law, undermining the rule of law and dampening public confidence and optimism.
Considering the conflicts and compromised state of the rule of law across various regions of the country, can we conclude that there is a lack of shared objectives among the stakeholders?
While conflicts may not always have clear-cut objectives, it is evident that power and the pursuit of resources have consistently played significant roles in fueling such disputes. The conflicts between regional states and other parts of the country are directly linked to the acquisition and control of power and resources.
A notable example illustrating this dynamic is the case of a failed commission established to arbitrate a border dispute between the Tigray and Amhara regional states. It highlights how power struggles and resource allocation are pivotal factors in these conflicts.
In Ethiopia, it appears that accountability has been overshadowed as politicians evade justice by leveraging their affiliations and, at times, utilizing ethnicity as a protective shield. How can we ensure an effective mechanism to hold those responsible for human rights abuses accountable?
Ethnicity has long been a complex issue in Ethiopian politics. The country’s governmental structure follows an ethnic federation model, resulting in the institutionalization of ethnicity and the allocation of power and resources based on ethnic affiliations. Regrettably, this has also led to divisions and conflicts, with political organizations forming along ethnic lines.
It is important to recognize that ethnicity has become deeply entrenched in Ethiopian society, providing a shield for criminals to hide behind and evade accountability for their actions. This presents a significant challenge for law enforcement officials, who must exert additional efforts to ensure that these individuals face justice. It is not uncommon for perpetrators to escape punishment for their crimes due to these complexities.
Can we assert that political accountability has entirely vanished from our nation?
It is arguable that our country has never truly embraced a culture of political accountability. An illustration of this is the Prime Minister’s refusal to disclose the amount of funds collected from various alliances, which contradicts the principles of transparency and accountability that should be upheld by our country’s laws and governance.
To what extent has the cycle of conflict in Ethiopia, commencing with the mishandled transition after the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and more recently, the aftermath of the Tigray war concluded last year, played a role in fueling the ongoing unrest observed across various regions of the country?
Several factors contribute to the prevailing challenges, and it appears that the Pretoria agreement is intertwined with the political unrest and ongoing conflicts in the Amhara regional state.
The war involved multiple actors, including the Amhara special force and other stakeholders, who played a significant role alongside the national army in combating the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Discontent within the Amhara community was exacerbated by the sudden dissolution of the region’s special forces.
Amhara nationalists express concerns that the disarmament could have negative repercussions, as they believe that the TPLF forces have not fully surrendered their weapons. Consequently, they perceive themselves as excluded from the peace agreement, which they see as being solely in the TPLF’s interest, raising fears for the safety of their people.
How does this situation affect the government’s ability to establish peace and stability in the country?
In order to achieve stability and resolve conflicts, it is crucial to address the underlying causes and foster reconciliation. However, as mentioned earlier, the mismanagement of the political transition, particularly in its initial stages, has had repercussions on the political landscape of the country.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that Ethiopia’s challenges are not solely attributed to the transition period; the nation has long grappled with political divisions.
Is there a notable correlation between transitional justice and the absence of accountability in Ethiopia, and what measures can be taken to tackle these challenges?
There are two important issues that necessitate attention. Firstly, there is a policy plan aimed at resolving the conflict through the implementation of African solutions for African problems. Secondly, there exists a correlation between the lack of accountability in Ethiopia and the concept of transitional justice.
Transitional justice refers to the processes and mechanisms utilized by societies to address the aftermath of significant human rights violations. Accountability plays a pivotal role in transitional justice as it ensures that individuals responsible for human rights abuses are held answerable for their actions. Without accountability, there is a risk of repeated violations.
While discussions among various stakeholders are ongoing regarding the policy plan, the crucial aspect lies in its implementation.
As a Human Rights advocate, I harbor doubts about our collective determination to effectively push forward and make the policy and process work. These doubts stem from the absence of robust and independent institutions that are essential for ensuring its success. The primary challenge lies in translating our aspirations into practical reality.
To make transitional justice effective, it is imperative to engage in continuous consultations. These consultations will play a vital role in determining the starting point for the policy or initiative and pave the way for its successful implementation.
Has social media contributed to the escalation of conflicts in Ethiopia, initially through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and now with the emerging influence of TikTok?
Social media platforms have played a significant role in amplifying conflicts in Ethiopia. However, it is important to note that what we witness on these platforms is often a manifestation of deeper underlying issues with far-reaching consequences.
While some may attribute the problems solely to the influence of social media, my perspective diverges from such a conclusion. Conflicts have complex root causes, and social media platforms contribute to their escalation rather than being the sole cause.
The impact of social media on the recent two-year war in Northern Ethiopia serves as a prominent example of its negative influence. During this period, social media platforms were utilized to disseminate false information and propagate hate speech targeting various ethnic groups. This contributed to the incitement of violence, resulting in the tragic loss of tens of thousands of lives and the displacement of millions.
This marked the first instance in Ethiopian history where war and social media converged to wreak havoc on our society. Consequently, these platforms intensified conflicts and led to unprecedented devastation within the country.
Addressing the detrimental impact of social media requires a collective effort involving multiple stakeholders. What further actions can be undertaken to mitigate these effects?
The unregulated power of social media platforms presents a significant challenge in Ethiopia, as it facilitates the dissemination of false information and hate speech by various individuals, including those with malicious intent. It is imperative to take proactive measures to address these issues at the grassroots level.
One potential solution could involve integrating the harmful effects of social media into the educational curriculum. Collaborative efforts between schools and civic society organizations could be initiated to raise awareness among students about the risks associated with social media. Public awareness campaigns could be employed to educate and empower individuals to navigate social media responsibly.
Recognizing that social media is a permanent fixture in society, it is essential to establish legal regulations to guide its usage. Additionally, ensuring that law enforcement agencies are equipped with the necessary resources to investigate and prosecute crimes committed through social media is crucial.
To what extent do you view the stability of Ethiopia as precarious? Do you believe that the process of state-building in Ethiopia is still ongoing and not yet fully accomplished?
The future stability of Ethiopia is difficult to determine, as it is currently undergoing a delicate political transition, which underscores the significance of successful democratization efforts. While there were hopeful signs of progress towards democracy five years ago, doubts have arisen in recent times.
Ethiopia’s history is marked by ethnic conflicts, which have intensified in recent years. However, the nation possesses a resilient social fabric that unifies diverse ethnic groups. Despite external perceptions of fragility, Ethiopia has overcome significant challenges in the past.
The war in Tigray has had a devastating impact on the entire country. However, with the signing of a peace agreement, life has gradually returned to normal, albeit with limitations. This resilience can be attributed to the strong informal and local bonds that exist within Ethiopian society, despite the numerous challenges faced.
It is evident that Ethiopia has a longstanding tradition of resilience and unity, leading me to believe that the country will navigate through the current threats to its democratization process.
Nevertheless, there is still much work to be done.
Diversity alone cannot sustain Ethiopia without a shared political consensus and a functioning democracy. Democracy relies on gaining the consent of the people, and without these essential elements, the nation may find itself trapped in a cycle of instability.
How can sustainable development initiatives in Ethiopia be designed and implemented to effectively uphold and advance human rights, recognizing the intersection between economic development and human rights?
In a nation, the progress of economic development and the protection of human rights are frequently hindered in the absence of stability. Stability is a fundamental prerequisite for achieving desired advancements and safeguarding against human rights violations. To ensure the well-being and security of its citizens, the government must prioritize the reinforcement of the rule of law. This entails strengthening the legal system and equipping law enforcement agencies with the necessary resources to effectively fulfill their duties.
However, building a strong and stable state is a challenging and time-intensive endeavor. Ethiopia must prioritize the attainment of peace and stability as a foundational step before embarking on sustainable development initiatives within the country.
In recent years, the media landscape in Ethiopia has experienced substantial transformations. How can the government effectively navigate the delicate balance between upholding media freedom and combating the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation?
The media landscape in Ethiopia has witnessed significant transformations in recent years, with the emergence of numerous new media outlets, including social media platforms. This has expanded the range of voices and perspectives available to the public. However, it has also introduced challenges such as the dissemination of hate speech and false information.
While the mainstream media landscape may have limitations in terms of diversity and reluctance to present critical ideas directed towards the government, there is room for improvement. Striking a balance between fostering a vibrant and inclusive media environment is essential for the country’s progress.
Efforts must be made to enhance the private media sector. It is important to acknowledge that mainstream and public media are not immune to shortcomings in our country, and no group should be exempt from criticism.
To support independent media outlets, the government should establish clear laws that protect freedom of speech and expression, including the right to criticize the government. These laws should provide specific guidelines on defining hate speech and misinformation, and they should be enforced in a fair and impartial manner.
The active involvement of young people in shaping the future of Ethiopia is of utmost importance. How can the government and civil society organizations effectively engage and empower the youth, ensuring their voices are acknowledged, and their rights are safeguarded?
The youth population in Ethiopia holds great potential and plays a significant role in the nation’s development. However, it is evident that current government policies do not adequately address their unique needs and interests.
In order to shape Ethiopia’s future effectively, it is crucial to actively involve and empower the youth through policies that cater to their requirements.
Both the government and civil society organizations have a vital role to play in empowering young people. One approach is to ensure their participation in decision-making processes through the establishment of youth councils, advisory boards, and providing job opportunities.
Furthermore, it is essential to guard against the manipulation of young people by political elites who may exploit their vulnerability for personal gain. Collaborative efforts between the government and civil society organizations can create a more inclusive and democratic Ethiopia, fostering an environment where the youth can thrive and realize their full potential.