Skip to main content
x

The new normal: omitting the responsibility to protect

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is an emerging international security and human rights norm which seeks to enhance the state’s ability to protect civilians from four mass atrocity crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and war crimes.

At the 2005 United Nations World Summit, world leaders came together and agreed unanimously to endorse R2P, acknowledging that state sovereignty entails a responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes. R2P is conventionally understood to have three aspects, or "pillars", each with differing levels of responsibility: Pillar I emphasizes a state’s obligations to protect all populations within its own borders; Pillar II outlines the international community’s role in helping states to fulfil this obligation; Pillar III identifies the international community’s responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, peaceful or coercive means to protect civilian populations where a state manifestly fails to uphold its obligations.

Looking into the first pillar, state or the government has the primary responsibility for protecting its own people from the above mentioned mass-atrocity crimes and protect human rights. Human Rights are commonly understood as being those rights which are inherent to the human being and they are legally guaranteed by human rights law, protecting individuals and groups against actions which interfere with fundamental freedoms of human being.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) Constitution and other international and national human rights instruments recognized these rights. Among the human rights recognized above, civil rights is the one recognized as one of the rights given to human beings. These rights are basic to ensure peoples' physical and mental integrity, life, and safety. For instance, the rights to life, equality, non-discrimination, and the rights to privacy, liberty and security of a person are few to state.

To this effect, states have three obligations towards human rights, the obligation to respect, protect and fulfill to ensure human rights. A strong law enforcement body is required to protect human rights by countries that have incorporated the above instruments in their constitution.

As part of the law enforcement bodies or state machineries, a country’s security forces mainly police are required to enforce the law, in due respect of the right of persons recognized under country’s constitution and other international standards.  The main duty of the security forces is to protect members of a society from any form of violation of their rights by other members of the society. As law enforcement body of a government, they have the responsibility to protect citizens from any kind of violation of their right to life, the right to bodily integrity, the right to property, the right to liberty, and other rights of citizens that are guaranteed in the international human rights instruments and other laws.

Ethiopia as a member of the UN since 1945, has joined six of  the Human right instruments i.e. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR); The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); The Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

These human rights instruments are part and parcel of Ethiopia’s constitution. The constitution gives all these civil and democratic rights to Ethiopian citizens with no exception. The Ethiopian government also has the ultimate right to manage its affairs within its borders, and also with the fundamental responsibility of shielding populations within its borders from any crimes that are against humanity and mass atrocity.

However, many of the incidents that are currently happening in many parts of Ethiopia depict the contrary. The Shashemene mob justice incident of August 2018, the Burayu incident of September 2018, the Gedeo displacement and killings of March 2019, the incident of August 2018 that happened in East Haraerge, the death of two researcher doctors in October 2018 in Gonji Amhara region, the incidents at Majete, Ataye and Kemesi region of Amhara in April 2019, the attacks of more than 30 churches with 18 burned in 2018 and 2019 in Oromia, Somali & Southern regions, and the burning of four mosques in December 2019 in Motta Amhara region, the death of 86 civilians  in Oromia region due to ethnic-based violence in the end of 2019 and the killings of university students, the recent abduction of mainly female students of Dembi Dolo University and many more incidents all points towards questioning the security apparatus of the government.

All the above incidents have claimed the lives of hundreds of peaceful civilians that most of it could have been prevented by police/security forces in their respective regions, had regional police and special forces responded to the cries of those who have pleaded repeatedly for help.

As a result, the obligation of the Ethiopian security forces including the police in relation to protection of human rights in safeguarding the people from any form of crime and maintaining social order to effective social mobility has been ignored during the past one year and a half.

Government security forces besides not protecting civilians, they have shot and killed five protestors who criticized the government for not protecting citizens from forced displacement and ethnically-based attacks, particularly allegations of rape and killings in September 2018.

Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty’s Director for East Africa, on Amnesty International UK press release of 17 September 2018 stated: “The authorities must explain why they failed to respond to people’s distress calls and then shot dead peaceful protesters” Nyanyuki futher said: “No one should die because of their ethnicity and neither should anyone die because they took a stand against the shocking violence and killings that the authorities failed to prevent.”

While this ongoing ethnic and religious violence and internal displacement is growing and continued to put lives at risk, the political will of the current government to prevent these crimes from taking place, or to stop them, is almost zero. The government has been and seems to be unable or unwilling to prevent any of the violence in every region that is happening and to protect minority groups from the violence and crimes against humanity and mass atrocity. Rather the government was focusing on building its public image to win the hearts of the international community.

The dormancy of the government in executing its duties of respecting human right, responsibility to protect its citizens from any crimes against humanity, and bringing criminals to justice has left many to live without the most fundamental of human rights – safety and security.

In many of the incidents victims witnessed security forces remain as bystanders if not sympathize with perpetrators and participate in the act. The regional special forces and regional police forces have repetitively omitted their duty and responsibility of protecting citizens of the country irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, language and identity as seen in many incidents including Burayu, Shashemene and Adama. Now many are living in fear in places where they are minority in terms of religion and ethnicity as they keep witnessing crimes against humanity every now and then.

Since the Ethiopian Government keeps on failing its citizens in protecting them from crimes against humanity several times and places; it’s time to consider the engagement of the international community as early as possible, as it is suggested on the 2nd and 3rd pillar of the “Responsibility to Protect” of the United Nations before it is too late.

Ed.’s Note: Bethelhem T. Alemu is a social scientist and journalist. She holds a Master’s Degree in Global Studies from Leipzig University and Addis Ababa University with a special emphasis on Peace and Security in Africa and LLB degree from Jimma University. She currently lives in North America. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. She can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Bethelhem T. Alemu