The independence and impartiality of justice sector organs is a pillar of constitutionalism that Ethiopia sorely misses. The manner of organization and operation of these organs is dictated more by the “party line” than the prescriptions of the constitution. Consequently they have come to speak with one voice about “public wing”, “one-to-five” pairing of staff and “collaboration”. The constitution provides that judicial powers are solely vested in the courts. That is why there is no legal basis compelling the judiciary to work in unison with the prosecution office, thepolice or prison administration. In other words there can be no “collaboration” between justice sector organs thatputs up for compromise the sole power of the courts to interpret the law. It’s for this very reason that the “Federal Justice Organs Week” being celebrated for the eighth time this week is defective at its core.
The institutions collectively known as the federal justice organs— the federal courts, the Federal Attorney General, the Federal and Addis Ababa police commissions as well as the Federal Prisons Administration—are perennially the buttof criticism in relation to their independence and impartiality. The theme of this year’s federal justice organs week is “Strong Justice Organs for a Reliable Federal Democratic Order”.Had the government honored the countless pledge it made to uphold the rule of law, there would not have been discontent over the pervasiveness of injustice. Although the organization and deployment of personnel of the justice system may be satisfactory, its independence and impartiality leaves a lot to be desired in terms of respecting the rule of law, enabling democracy to take root and ensuring political stability. It’s only by learning from past mistakes and holding to account anyone involved in criminal acts that Ethiopia can become a stable democracy. If citizens are to freely exercise their rights and lead a life of dignity and if the democratic space is to be broadened so as to foster peaceful political struggle, it is of the essence that the justice system functions in full independence and impartiality and is solely directed by the law. A judicial system that is at the beck and call of the executive branch of the government only serves to perpetuate injustice and thereby destabilize a nation.
Failure to give practical effect to the constitutional edict that courts shall be free from any interference of influence of any governmental body, government official or from any other source as well as to ensure that judges exercise their functions independently and are guided by the law and their conscience is liable to emasculate the judiciary.Is it possible to say in full confidence that the courts are truly independent and impartial given that the ruling party and the administration it heads have total control over the recruitment and appointment of judges? Are judges entirely free from interference at the hand of both state and non-state actors in the course of carrying out their duties? Isn’t it true that a black cloud hangs over asignificant number of judges regarding their independence and impartiality? In view of these and similar other deficiencies besetting the judiciary it would be a gross dereliction of duty not to seek without any delay holistic solutions aimed at assuringthat the courts are independent in letter and spirit.
The Attorney General, the preeminent law enforcement institution, is similarly accused of lacking independence and impartiality. The institution of trumped up criminal charges and the questionable dropping of charges on the orders of senior government officials has eroded citizens’ faith in it.Many law-abiding citizens have been subjected to ordeal and fled the country due to the misuse of the powers given to it by law. Moreover, a considerable number of people have endured sufferingcourtesy of draconian, ambiguous and poorly written legislations which not only infringe the constitution, but also enfeeble the justice system. The upshot of all this has been to undermine the rule of law. Putting behind us this sad chapter ought to be one of the top priorities of the federal, regional and local governments.
Much has been said about the egregious rights violations perpetrated by the police and prisons administration. Though the majority of members of the police force do their jobs within the confines of their authority, a small minority are guilty of routinely committing such degrading acts as beating and torturing detainees as well as drawing out investigations unnecessarily long as a means of punishing them. When it comes to the prisons administration the widespread instances of beatings and torturing coupled with denial of visitation rights and medical treatment, which have been documented by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, point to the absolute lack of independence and impartiality on its part. It’s in the backdrop of such a sad state of affairs that calls have grown for a complete overhaul of the justice system with the goal of ensuring that it transforms into a genuinely independent and impartial pillar of the constitutional order that enables citizens to fully exercise their rights.
It is impossible to build a democratic and prosperous society while justice remains an elusive ideal. If citizens are unable to enjoy the inalienable rights enshrined in the constitution, are at the mercy of those who have political and financial clout and generally lack equal access to justice the consequences will be catastrophic. It’s the height of hypocrisy to claim to be the champion of justice even as one is culpable of assails the rule of law. It would be a mockery of justice if judges, prosecutors, the police and prison administration are robbed the independence and impartiality they need to faithfully discharge the solemn responsibilities they shoulder. As long as lawlessness has ascendancy over the rule of law it does not make sense to talk about the justice system. If Ethiopia is to develop into a nation whose people live in harmony and prosperity it is of paramount importance to safeguard the independence and impartiality of the institutions constituting the justice system.