Human Rights Commission: Struggling to make an impact
Addisu Gebreegziabher was appointed as the head of the Ethiopian Human Right Commission (EHRC) at the beginning of the current Ethiopia fiscal year. Prior to that, he was the deputy chairperson of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). Two week ago, Addisu made his debut appearance before the Parliament where he presented the long awaited report on the recent unrest in Oromia and Amhara Regional States. Neamin Ashenafiof The Reporter sat down with him at his office to discuss the major findings of the report, the process of organizing the report, the overall investigation process and other issues related to the overall activities of the commission in safeguarding human right and the general human right situation in Ethiopia. Excerpts:
The Reporter: What is your assessment of the human rights situation in Ethiopia? And what have you done since you assumed the leadership of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission?
Addis Gebregziabher (PhD): Close to one quarter of the Ethiopian Constitution is dedicated to basic human rights which are common around the world. Hence, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is one of the five democratic institutions which are established by law to safe guard these basic human rights in Ethiopia. So far, we have focused on primary awareness raising work regarding the constitution and the rights enshrined in the constitutions. The public should be wellinformed about its basic rights and it should be part of the effort to safeguard these rights. So, we have been educating the public about the basic human rights conventions that the country is signatory to and other international declarations. As it was clearly stipulated in the constitution, these international declarations to which Ethiopia is a signatory party are part and parcel of the local laws. So, we have been doing these awareness raising programs in various languages. Apart from that, we also conduct a strict followup on certain institutions which are known to be exposed to human rights violations. For example, we strictly follow the human rights conditions in police stations and detention centers. Our constitution clearly states that each and every legal detainee is entitled to his/her dignity and certain rights and privilege. So, we interview legal detainees to see if their rights have been respected while remaining under the umbrella of the law. Based on our findings, we give rigorous feedback to the institutions and on how they can improve on their short- comings. At times, when the misgiving is not being corrected we resort to notifying the executive and then the parliament, respectively. The third area of focus is our investigation into the human rights conditions of citizens in times of conflict and unrest. Furthermore, we also advise the executive on how to improve human rights conditions in the country. This is another important task that we take very seriously.
If you take the facts on the ground, for instance, the behaviors of law-enforcement officers in the country widespread human rights abuses are reported by the public. Since your primary job is to monitor the human rights situation in Ethiopia and report to the relevant bodies for proper redress, do you think that you are making a difference?
Yes, we have a steady stream of charges alleging possible violation of human rights by certain institutions or individuals. The first thing we do is check whether the case is something we can entertain. You see, some people bring cases which have already entered the due process and in that case we will not have the jurisdiction to entertain the claims. This is clearly stipulated in our establishing proclamation that we cannot entertain claims if they are being reviewed by the court system and the parliament. After clearing these issues, we then proceed to determine if the claims are indeed human rights related issues and not a problem that is connected to maladministration or good governance which is under the jurisdiction of the institute of the ombudsman. After clearly demarcating a case is indeed related to human rights violation, we then proceed to investigating the matter and address the claims appropriately. We have closed many cases in this manner and we will continue to do so. There are also cases which are still pending and will be addressed in due time. Generally, we meet with the public every three months to discuss human rights conditions in the country. Nevertheless, we cannot address all human rights problems overnight; it takes time. There are still issues which needs to be addressed and we will get to them in due time. We do know that when good governance issues are left unaddressed they eventually evolve into human rights violations. So, this is why we are trying to engage the administrative body like those from the city administration. Recently, we have offered training programs for officers pooled from each subcity in Addis Ababa. Similarly, we work with many other stakeholders and offer constant awareness-raising training programs pointing out what the role of leaders, officers, civil society members and other members of the society are when it comes to human rights. These groups represent various interests and individuals which the commission could not reach if it tries to address them directly. Basically, we entertain a number of issues which comes to our attention either via direct reporting or as we do our periodic follow-ups sessions. For instance, as we speak, most of our investigators are out in field work, each team entertaining different cases. I can say, so far, we have seen good results; but we need not dwell on the success stories; instead we should strive for more.
How do you rate the response from the side of the government—both the executive and legislature?
For example, as you know, we are directly accountable to the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HoPR); so we have constant engagements with the HoPR. The support from the House has also been encouraging. As you know, the House is the one which will present all of our budget proposals to the executive and so far we have not encountered any hiccups in this department. Furthermore, the House has also offered us an unwavering support when we conduct our investigations into some of the recent political unrest in country.
But some people ask how far the commission has come in terms taking proactive measures to mitigate human right violations around the country. This is apart from your efforts to publicize human rights conditions in connection with major political unrests in country?
This is one of the things that we are seriously considering while preparing our five-year strategic plan. We have discussed that we need to take more proactive role in preventing human rights abuse; we have noticed the need to abandon the fire brigade approach. One of the intervention areas in this sense is, as I have said before, awareness raising work. We need to work on two fronts: the public and public service giver. The constitution stands as the only bridge between the two parties. So, both the service giver and public should understand their rights and obligations. We understand that we have a lot of ground to cover in terms of educating the service giver. So, we have a lot of things to do with regard to internalizing the basic principles of the constitutions in the country. It is will be a continuous process but it is the only approach if we are to take a proactive in preventing human rights violations. If you look at it, the mother of all conflicts and abuses is lack of knowledge. If there is adequate knowledge, people don’t need an enforcer to respect human rights. Hence, we need to work on that seriously. To facilitate these efforts, we have recently opened eight new regional offices in eight regional states. These offices will help the commission to reach the community and work intensively on awareness raising.
However, the commission is yet to release its first human rights situation report. And, in the past we have heard that it has reached the drafting stages. Why hasn’t it been released yet?
As far as I understand it, the human rights situation report you are referring to is being released periodically together with the annual performance report of the commission. The last one was presented to parliament at the end of last budget year and incorporated into the annual performance report. We have covered a lot of grounds for instance in assessing the human rights situation in the Ethiopian prison system and police stations. Apart from that, we have also concluded other situation reports focusing, for example, on women in the southern region, the Menja tribe. These studies are concluded and it is at the editing stages at the moment.
There are various international standards with regard to Human Rights institution. And UN standards and accreditation is one of them. What is the status of the Ethiopian human rights commission at the moment? And what is your aspiration in this regard?
We believe that before the UN we are accountable to our own people. We think that it is the nations and nationalities of Ethiopia who should bear witness to the human rights situation in Ethiopia. We want our people to tell us about their status. We have stakeholder meetings with the public every three months we want the public to tell us about the human rights situation in the country. The UN human rights status and evaluation has its own considerations. Based on our interaction with the UN, most of the feedbacks we were give were about making our periodic reports available for deliberation. They want us to publicize our reports on the internet and other medium so that it could be discussed widely. Some of them are concerned about the progress of Ethiopia UPR commitments with regard to human rights. Part of our job is, of course, following up on these commitments. We do continuous followup on some of the recommendations made to improve human rights conditions in Ethiopia although we didn’t commit ourselves to implementing all the recommendations given to the country. So, thus far, our relationship with the UN is good.
Apart from assessing the various law enforcement bodies in the country, what is the commission doing in terms of evaluating the impact of some of proclamations like the anti-terrorism law and civil society proclamation which is deemed by many to be instruments of human rights violations?
As a human rights commission, we are prevue parties to the new laws and proclamations enacted by the legislator. We are expected to give our feedback from the point of view of human rights. We have our own role to play in terms of creating clarity so that these laws would not infringe upon basic human rights which are guaranteed by the constitution. Specifically, regarding the anti-terrorism and charities and civil society proclamations, as a human rights commission, we don’t believe that they are directly linked to human rights. To understand the claims of some groups who accuse these of violating basic human rights we need the facts on the ground. First and fore most, the question is if Ethiopia in the only country which has enacted these laws. The answer is no. Some of the advanced countries which are praised for their human right track records even have stringent variant of these laws. In fact, with the threat of terrorism around the world, these nations have been tightening these proclamations recently. So, terrorism is terrorism. In fact, terrorism is something that negatively affects human rights. However, if there is someone who is charged with this law although he/she is not explicitly participating in the act of terrorism, now that could be human rights violation. Thus far, we have not entertained any claims from the public regarding these laws. But, in general, we hear some international organizations opposing the indictment of some groups on the anti-terrorism law. The biggest injustice is when these international organizations ignore the due-process of the country and say that people who are found guilty by the court of law are wrongfully accused. Anyway, it does not make sense to me to oppose the law as law. Ethiopia is a sovereign nation. So we know which laws to enact and which laws to enforce; it is our prerogative. From a human rights stand- point, we cannot be expected to reverse the decision of the court. As a citizen we respect the court. But, we do investigate how people who are sentenced by the courts are being treated in prisons.
Some people say that some of the civil society organization which have fallen victim to the proclamation have had big contributions in raising awareness on issues like human rights. Since you are striving to raise awareness, is it not counter-productive?
As I have mentioned to you before, we work with cross sectional groups, women, the youth and so on regarding human rights. One of the things we focus on in our engagement with these groups is awareness-raising work. We have good linkage with various sections of the society and the government itself. So, thus far, I can say we have encountered such challenges. This is what we are doing via our branches in the eight regions. We do recognize the role that is played by the civil society organizations. But, this law was enacted by the House of Peoples’ Representatives. The peoples’ representatives have spoken and it should be respected. So, we have to respect that law as a commission. As to awareness raisings regarding human rights, the responsibility is not limited to civil society; we have a responsibility as a democratic institution and apart from the commission, the courts, people’s councils and government all have their own role to play. So, we all play our roles diligently I don’t see any problem.
A few weeks ago you presented your report into the recent political unrest in Oromia and Amhara Regional States. Subsequently, the Ethiopian Human Right Council has also released its report which is entirely different in content to your report. How you do see the council’s report?
All I can say is that we are structurally two different institutions. The Commission is accountable to parliament while I can’t say anything as to whom the council is accountable. With regard to our report, we have done a wide range of investigation into these conflicts. We have employed a clear methodology when we conducted our investigation. We went into the investigation to assess the human rights situation fully independently. The start and the end of our report was the constitution. We have reviewed the conflicts from the point of view of respect to the constitution. All the recommendations and the body of the report are logically linked to one another and we have tried to employ a scientific methodology to investigate the matter. So, we have labored a lot on this report and we have managed to release a detailed account of the event. But, I could not say much about the council’s report.
What are the techniques that the commission has employed in verifying the information and in making sense of the evidence? Can you take us through the whole process of investigation?
First of all, we dispatch a group of investigators into the areas where the protests occurred. But, before the departure of the investigation team, we trained them on the procedures and ethics that should be followed strictly during the investigation. The investigators were also briefed about the incidents. We conducted a thorough and scientific preparation before we sent the team off to conflict areas. Therefore, the investigation involved all the stakeholders in the protest namely the government, families of the victims, religious leaders, community members, women, elders, and security personnel. How many kebeles are there in each wereda? And how many kebeles were affected by the unrest from each weredas? What was the property damage and whose was it? How was the killing and who committed it? were some of the questions that investigation team set out answer. We investigated all these circumstances in detail. To verify all the information collected from the field, we went further and checked medical reports from hospitals in the lcoalities.We also investigated the death toll in each wereda and who caused them. It was not an easy task to arrive at a conclusion because the commission is responsible for every conclusion that it would make. The reports should be free from emotions; it should be conducted responsibly and be based on the rules and regulations set out. We decided, each and every stakeholder should be involved in the process of investigation so as to arrive at a concrete conclusion. In this regard, the report can be claimed to be prudent. Therefore, this report has the aim of identifying the major problem and identifying all the perpetrators. It also played a major role in preventing the second occurrence of such problems in the country.
On your report tabled before the parliament, you have identified that a peaceful public demonstration in Oromia regional state was hijacked by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and subsequently turned violent. How did you substantiate OLF’s involvement in the demonstration?
We have substantial evidence. The constitution of the country endowed all citizens with the right to demonstrate. However, those organizations labeled as terrorist by the parliament such as OLF and other anti-peace elements hijacked the peaceful demonstrations and turned it into violence and chaos. The question by the public was crystal clear. For instance, if we see the incident in Oromia, the public raised the issue of good governance and lack of transparency, especially regarding the Oromia-Addis Ababa integrated master plan. The commission believes that questions of good governance by the public should be respected since it is a human rights question in essence and society has the right to ask such questions. The government is also responsible to respond. The report says that the questions of the society is not entertained by the pertinent bodies and redressed on a timely manner. However, these questions were later hijacked by anti-peace forces. I thought it was removed by the efforts of the elders and the society. The official flag of OLF was hoisted in some protest areas. People were waving this flag and this is more than enough to substantiate the involvement of OLF. Therefore, the evidence is there and our investigators have also found some fliers and papers which were disseminated during the protest. There were also a song which speaks of the integrated master plan that prompts the youth to be involved in chaos and turmoil. All these are the evidences in the ground which we got from the society. We asked the public about the incident and the information that we obtained from the public was substantiated our claims. The public also told us that though the questions were that of good governance, it was hijacked by anti- peace forces. When they refuse to take part in the chaos, they were threatened with the burning of their harvest and houses. This is not hidden from the public and that’s what the public had told us during the process of investigation.
On the report, you blamed the Amhara special police force for taking disproportional measure and recommended legal measure on the leaders of the special police force. But, you clearly mentioned that the Amhara regional government was not responsible for the atrocities. Yet again, you cleared the regional government of any involvement or the harsh measures taken by its police forces. How could the regional government be free of blame while its police force is directly accountable to the regional cabinet? Some are referring to this as a political statement. How do you react to such comments?
The special police force that was on a mission in northern Gonder in areas such as Mawra and Aykel used excessive force. We have stated that the special police force used excessive force and should be accountable because the evidence on the ground demonstrates that. However, we didn’t find any link between the regional government and the order given to the police force. Had we found any evidence of involvement we would have not hesitated to blame the regional government.For instance, we have seen the case of the special police force in Mawra city; elders were begging the special police not to apply a disproportional force three days before but the special police refused.
But it seems illogical, that there is a regional cabinet that undertakes an activity associated with the securities of the region and the police are accountable to the regional administration. Given that fact, you didn’t get evidence that links the measures taken by the special police and the regional administration?
Well, it would be illogical if we blame anybody without having a tangible evidence. After examining the information and the evidence we haven’t get a link that leads to the regional government. It should not be seen separately and therefore in our investigation we don’t get any link and evidence that the regional government is involved in the incident. Our conclusion that the special force uses excessive force is based on the evidence. Had there been any link that shows the regional government is involved we don’t refrain to say the regional government is involved and should be accountable. An investigation is not something conducted emotionally. It has its own scientific techniques and ways.
The other issue mentioned in parliament was that the commission and all stakeholders of the federal and regional government had conferred on the findings of the report, before the final report was presented to the house. Consulting the executive branch, or anybody for that matter, is this right for an independent human right commission? Don’t you think it will jeopardize the independence of your institution?
Independence of a certain institution should not be measured by collecting feedbacks from pertinent bodies of the government. The feedback was all about discussing the information that we gathered from different stakeholders; nothing has changed from the report content wise. It was about discussing the major issues and to notify them about the information, and I don’t think it has a problem. A feedback seminar is always conducted in different instances. It is not about changing this and that. However, the independence of an institution should be measured by its performance. It is because we are independent that we investigated the case in Oromia and Amhara regional states and notified the house of the loss of life and destruction of properties.