Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Heeding lessons of state of emergency

The expiration at the beginning of this week of the state of emergency declared by Parliament in the Amhara region without so much as a word from it has left man wondering why the government chose to be silent on why it let it lapse. Initially enacted on August 4, 2023 in response to “attacks by ‘armed extremist groups’ in the region which ‘posed an increasing threat to public security, endangered the constitutional order, and were causing significant economic damage’ “, it was extended by a four months in February 2024 “to further solidify the existing peace in the region”. Although precise figures are hard to come by, the violence racking large swathes of the Amhara region has claimed the lives of thousands, forced tens of thousands to flee their homes, resulted in the destruction of both public and private properties, and disrupted such basic social services as medical treatment, education and transportation.

The state of emergency came after the Fano, an irregular force that is composed of volunteer militiamen from the local populace in the Amhara region, launched an insurgency in April 2023 and took control of some towns in the region. Since then fighting has been raging between them and the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF). The conflict has escalated into one of the gravest security crisis Ethiopia has been embroiled in since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assumed office in April 2018. The Fano and the Amhara Special Forces fought alongside the ENDF during the two-year civil war that pitted the federal government against the forces of the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF). The Fano said they were forced to take up arms against both the federal and regional governments due to the dissolution in particular, of the regional special forces months after the civil war ended, alleging that the move was aimed at disarming the Amhara people and thereby render them incapable of repelling attacks by Tigray militants.

The implementation of the state of emergency has been marked by serious violations and gaps that the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRC) and other rights organizations have brought to light. EHRC has published a series of reports in the past ten months documenting the extrajudicial killings of civilians as well as the incarceration of individuals suspected of being members or sympathizers of the Fano in breach of due process rights. Given the extreme measures it allows the government to take, including the temporary suspension of fundamental rights guaranteed under the constitution, a state of emergency is bound to result in the infringement of these rights no matter how carefully the government tries to implement it. As such it is imperative to heed the lessons learned from the just ended state of emergency as they are invaluable in shaping future responses to similar situations.

One crucial lesson is the importance of clear legal frameworks and accountability mechanisms to guide the government’s actions during emergency situations. The declaration of a state of emergency should be based on a legal foundation that clearly specify the procedures for oversight, review, and accountability to prevent abuses of power and ensure that fundamental rights are protected even in times of crisis. The restrictions imposed on certain rights to address a crisis must be necessary, proportionate, prescribed by law and subject to judicial review to prevent arbitrary or excessive use of power. Although Parliament established an inquiry board immediately after it decrees the State of Emergency, the fact that its members are largely drawn from the ruling party casts a shadow over its independence, making it imperative to put in place transparent and lawful governance structures. It’s then that the government can uphold the rule of law and safeguard human rights while effectively managing emergencies.

Another key lesson is the necessity of effective communication, transparency, and public engagement in the implementation of a state of emergency. Clear and timely communication with stakeholders and the general public is essential to inform citizens about the reasons for the emergency declaration, the measures being taken, and the expected outcomes. This can go some way towards building trust, reducing misinformation, and garnering public support for emergency measures. Engaging with civil society, media, and independent monitors is also vital to ensure that the government’s actions are consistent with human rights standards and international norms.

The most important lesson though is the need to address the root causes of the crisis and promote sustainable solutions to prevent future emergencies. Emergency measures are often reactive and temporary responses to immediate threats, such as unrest, violence, or natural disasters. However, to build resilience, stability, and long-term peace, the government must address underlying grievances, inequalities, and structural challenges that contribute to instability and conflict. Investing in conflict prevention, reconciliation, development, and inclusive governance can help address root causes and build a more peaceful and prosperous society resilient to future crises.

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