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Of rights and freedom

Of rights and freedom

Felix Horn is a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, particularly concerning Ethiopia and Eritrea. For years, Felix has been dealing with reporting and documenting issues of human rights in Ethiopia. At the front of every report concerning human rights violations and abuses, his report was receiving a mixed response where Ethiopian government and its supporters have been criticizing for lack of credibility while others have been using the same report to scrutinize and criticize the government. Based in Ottawa, Canada, Felix has been conducting his research for years. The last time he was allowed to visit Ethiopia was eight years ago where it was the last time that he was granted a visa. After a one year effort to get an entry visa to Ethiopia, he was finally allowed by the government to visit Ethiopia. In the middle of his week-long stay in Ethiopia, Dawit Endeshaw and Samuel Getachew of The Reporter caught up with Felix Horn to discuss human rights and other pertinent issues in Ethiopia. Excerpts:

The Reporter: The last time you were in Ethiopia was eight years ago. What are the kinds of changes that you are beginning to see from afar and within Ethiopia?

Felix Horn: The changes, since even two years ago, are dramatic. There have been a number of significant reforms; most of the changes are what domestic and international human rights organizations asked for. They have been implemented or pledged to be implemented. That is a significant change; there are no many countries in the world with such dramatic turn round.

The release of so many political prisoners and peace deal with so many previously banned political groups is a radical transformation. I mean being in Addis for the first time in eight years; you can just feel the difference. There is indeed a different feeling here than I remember eight years ago. People seem to be much more open to speak to groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW). It is quite striking.

At the same time there are a lot of problems. A lot of things seem to be very concerning which can jeopardize the reform trajectory.

HRW has been active in exposing alleged human rights violations in Ethiopia. But the thing is there is also a fair criticism against how you were conducting your task. For instance, some would say you guys are just based in some office in Europe or the US and release a report which your critics always labeled as being not credible and untrustworthy. So how do you respond to such accusations?

It is a fact that the government had put limitations on domestic civil societies and media. What people would tell me in private, repeatedly; they could not say it in public. You know the government took various steps to suppress expression of opinions inside this country. So those few people who could publically speak about Ethiopia’s human rights situation were those who reside outside the country.

But still it wasn’t difficult to communicate with those people who are also inside the country. There are lots of encrypted technologies that you can use to communicate with others. Particularly, over the past couple of years, we have been able communicate with people on the ground. We have extensive networks of contacts throughout the country. There are thousands of Ethiopians who suffer different human rights abuses in various directions and once they cross the boarders they are willing to share their experiences and perspectives. Not just for victims but also perpetrators.  I mean, I have always been surprised that how many federal police officers, lower level security officials and members of the federal military that were willing to speak openly to HRW about the abuses they were involved in.

So it would be more difficult if we were in the country. But the type of abuses we documented and reported on; you can still get that information through different means. However, what is missing from the reporting of over the last few years is the perspective of the government. They denied themselves the opportunity to explain what they are doing to deal with the human rights violations we documented. They also denied themselves the opportunity to address it before it became public. So for our reporting anywhere in the world, we give governments the chance to take action.

For instance, if you take the report we released in June, 2018 regarding Jail Ogaden (Somali Regional State), we had the opportunity to meet with the government ahead of time. They could have taken the steps they have actually taken (closing the jail in Ogaden and the arrest of Abdi Illey) before the report came out. So they really denied themselves a lot of opportunities.

All our reports are based on very detailed and in-depth interviews. They are not just artificial quick discussions.

You had difficulties previously in terms finding people who can co-author your research within Ethiopia. So, in general, is it becoming easier to do your research in Ethiopia after the new government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power? And is the new government becoming more open?

We hope that it will be easier for HRW researchers to access Ethiopia now that there is a new government. It took HRW more than year to acquire entry visa. It is not clear why that happened. On the other hand, the discussion we had with the government and Ethiopian embassies aboard was really positive. It is a completely different tone than it was before Prime Minister Abiy took power. But as I said it has been difficult to get a visa.

On the assumption that we continue to get a visa and build relationship with the government; I hope that it will completely change the way we do research including partnering more with domestic civil societies.

Over the past three years there have been a number of human rights violations and abuses against a certain community or ethnic groups. Having said that, we can recall the case of the Qimant ethnic group where the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission presented a report to the parliament which proved that the group was actually suffering massive abuses. In fact the Amhara Regional State officials were forced to apologize for what has happened. Yet, Human Rights Watch was very quiet about it. Why were you silent?

Ethiopia is a country of 110 million people with very complex and serious access constraint and because of this we can’t cover everything. For every report we put out, which benefits certain communities, we are thanked for exposing their plight. Equally, there are groups from other communities who would criticize us for not covering this and this.

Ideally, we would love to cover all the issues that is going on in Ethiopia but it just not possible to do so. We have a very small group that works on Ethiopia. So it is a very complex situation.

The issue in Qimanat or the issue in Tigray something we want to cover if we had the access but it has been difficult to do so.

The other thing is doing in-depth interviews in person without access is difficult. For instance, in the case of Amhara, when something happened, people don’t flee that much far. May be they might go to Sudan which is another country which has been difficult for us to get access.

But in the future we are planning to cover more on what is happening in Northern Ethiopia, in general.

Was there any effort by HRW to track some of these people and get in touch with them?

Yes, there was an effort. We interviewed a number of people on the ground but our challenge is we have to corroborate everything and we couldn’t do it because we couldn’t access a big enough sample size.

How do you decide on the timing of the release of reports? Is there any precondition on when it comes to when to release such reports?

I think it depends on a number of factors. We pick the topics and time of the release of the reports to have more impact. For instance if we had put out the report on Jail Ogaden five years ago it wouldn’t have an impact. However, upon the release of the report there was a feeling that something like that report could perhaps be the straw that broke the camel’s back. So we felt like there is an advocacy window so we release the report at that time.

I believe there are many areas that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed managed to impress you. What are some of the changes you are seeing?

In terms of the media scene we have seen improvements. For instance, when there is any press conference we now see the Oromo Media Network (OMN) and the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) microphones standing side by side. I think that is a powerful thing which represents the changes that is happening.

Previously, there were things like jamming radio and TV signals as well as blocking websites; but not anymore. Not only these, the peace deals with previously banned political groups, as well, is a significant one. In addition, the peace deal with Eritrea, even if it is murky, is also positive.

Have anything changed for HRW after PM Abiy came to power?

For now it is just the tone of the government that has changed when it comes to its perspective towards the engagement of HRW. It is now more positive and collaborative. In addition people are becoming more open to talk to us. There is also more open communication with the government.

But what has not changed is that in many of the rural areas where we talk to people we have learned that things have not changed dramatically. This is something PM Abiy seems to ignoring. The growing tensions in many areas are building. I mean there are more than two million internally displaced persons.

You mentioned a number of positive developments after Prime Minister Abiy came to power. On the other hand, there have been a number of attacks against certain ethnic groups – most of the time against Tigrayans. In this regard, people are saying that HRW is ignoring the issue. Why is that?

That is a fair criticism. As I said we still haven’t had access. So, in the future, we will hope to have access to conduct research. There are a number of conflicts, which are ethnic-related, in many areas. That is what we are hoping to look into in the future. Again we don’t make statements on things we didn’t research.

So was it difficult for you to conduct the research?

It would be difficult to research on things related with ethnicity from aboard. The other thing is that the current pace of changes in Ethiopia – both good and bad – is hard to catch up with.

Having said that, the attacks on Tigrayans is something you can see from social media before and after Abiy came to power which is a huge concern. It is increasing dramatically.

So what is next for HRW? Are you planning to open an office?

Hopefully, in the long-term it is good to have permanent presence in Ethiopia. It is our first visit in eight years and we are trying to build relationships but it has been difficult to meet officials in Addis.

We are pleased with the reforms but we need to see what direction the government will take especially after the upcoming election.