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“We are working towards an amendment of the establishment proclamation to ensure the full autonomy of the Commission” Daniel Bekele (PhD)

“We are working towards an amendment of the establishment proclamation to ensure the full autonomy of the Commission” Daniel Bekele (PhD)

Daniel Bekele (PhD) is the newly-minted Chief Commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. A lawyer, he was previously with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Action Aid and was the Senior Director for Africa Advocacy, based in New York City, where he also served one time as its Executive Director of its African Division. He earned his PhD from Oxford University in International law last year. A former prisoner-of-conscious, he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on human rights in Ethiopia, on the recent civil unrest, on how the commission is ever evolving and becoming independent and finally reflects on the role it intends to play in the upcoming national election happening next year. Excerpts:

The Reporter: For the last several weeks, we have seen many lives being lost, properties damaged and thousands of people displaced and hurt. We have read the statement that came out of your commission recently. Is there any plan to bring accountability to what has happened by way of an independent investigation or public inquiry?

Daniel Bekele (PhD): Ensuring accountability is key to ending culture of impunity and cycle of human rights abuses. EHRC has already called for full accountability of all offenders and the federal government has stated its commitment to ensure accountability. It is now for police and the Attorney General’s office to undertake full investigation, gather evidences and hold all perpetrators of these heinous crimes to account. But any such investigation and the judicial process requires time. We should now let the police and prosecutors do their job but it is also critical to ensure that innocent people are not further victimized in the name of criminal investigation. EHRC will also continue to monitor the process.

Do you think the actions of the government so far are adequate? 

We are still at very early stages of the criminal investigation process and hence it would be rather premature to comment on the adequacy of the process at this stage. But the government clearly is stating its unwavering commitment to hold all perpetrators to account is the first step in the right direction. This statement should now be followed by concrete actions.

Highlighted by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, there have been widespread complaints on delayed justice for suspects under police custody as well as due process, including their Miranda rights, denied to them during the investigation process. Since you have taken over the commission, there has been a push to make it more transparent and earn the commission public confidence. How far do you think you have you come in achieving that?

There is still a long way to go in improving administration of criminal justice in Ethiopia. There are notable advances on many levels but there are lots of areas yet to be improved including extended remand custody, denial of bail rights and ensuring speedy trials. The various law enforcement agencies are working with very limited resources.

One of the long-running accusations against the commission was its lack of independence and the uniform like accusation was that government cadres run it. How independent is the commission now do you think?

The Commission is now fully independent in a sense that no government authority gives direction on the work of the Commission but there are certain structural limitations affecting its operational independence and fundamental reforms are yet to be accomplished to ensure both the operational and financial autonomy of the institution. We are working towards an amendment of the establishment proclamation to ensure the full autonomy of the Commission.

The last few years, we have seen a uniform-like unrest across the nation – from Benishangul, Gedeo to Guji and Qimant. Some say, the commission has been silent. Why the silence?

It has only been just few months since the Commission got a new Chief Commissioner and we started a process of reform and restructuring. The reform is key to make the institution fit for purpose. Although the Commission is not yet at full capacity, there is good effort underway, among other things, to handle wide range of complaints, monitoring of prisons and detainees, and responding to emergency human rights situations.

We are almost a year away from a national election and fear of unrest and violence is almost certain to occur. What is the commission doing to ensure those who instigate such violence are held accountable and that the rights of citizens would be respected? 

We hope the Commission will make progress on the reform and restricting work sooner than later and be ready to design and implement a proper human rights strategy around the elections. This will help to contribute towards a peaceful and credible electoral process and ensuring the respect and protection of all human rights before, during and in the post-election period.

Share with me about the status of the implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan.

I would like to see a new human rights action plan that clearly sets out the priority human rights issues in the country with a robust action plan.

Is the commission working closely with federal and regional police commissions?

We seek to coordinate our work with all relevant stakeholders including police and all law enforcement agencies both at regional and federal level. Just the last couple of months, police commissions have been helpful in facilitating our visits to detention centers.  

How well-versed do you think are security officers and the police when it comes to ensuring the rights of citizens?

All law enforcement agencies and their officers could benefit from a regular and sustained training and capacity development on international human rights standards and other relevant professional skills for their work. Capacity building is not just a one-time intervention. You need to institutionalize a system of continuing professional education program for all law enforcement officers.