Ethiopia’s Bloody Crackdown: The Case for International Justice
Ethiopian security forces gunned down at least 100 people a week ago in the bloodiest weekend in the ninth month of anti-government protests. Unlike previous protests, which have been largely confined to the Oromia region, the protests on August 6 and 7 were also in the northern Amhara region. Altogether at least 500 people have been killed since November and tens of thousands have been detained during the largely peaceful protests.
The protests in Oromia started in November over the government’s approach to development, but as the crackdown intensified, protester grievances focused on longstanding abuses and discrimination. In the Amhara region, protesters have voiced concerns over the dominance of those connected to the ruling party in economic and political affairs, complex questions of ethnic identity, and other historic grievances. Protesters vow to continue, and there is no indication of a letup from security forces or new concessions from the government.
Security force torture of people in detention has been pervasive. Girma (not his real name), an 18-year-old student, was released last week from an Ethiopian military camp seven months after he was arrested at a protest with his classmates. He told me when I talked with him after his release that the nightly beatings left him with permanent injuries that make it hard for him to walk. He is banned from returning to school and afraid he will be arrested again if he seeks medical care. He still hears the screams of the “hundreds of protesters still there who were tortured every night.”
Donor countries to Ethiopia have been largely silent about the brutal crackdown, presumably in part due to the Ethiopian government’s strategic relationships on security, peacekeeping, migration, and development. For years, the US, the UK and other influential governments have basically rejected public condemnation of the Ethiopian government’s repressive practices. But a strategy of “quiet diplomacy” is increasingly limited as Ethiopia’s human rights situation declines and its heavy-handed response to the largely peaceful protests is fueling more anger and frustration.
The small bit of good news is that the international silence on Ethiopia was broken on August 10 when the UN’s top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, told Reuters that an international investigation and accountability are needed for the killings of protesters.
The protesters I spoke with in recent weeks have been increasingly reassessing the effectiveness of their peaceful protests in the absence of justice, accountability, and international condemnation of the government’s killing, torture and arbitrary arrests. They told me they are losing faith in Western governments to offer even the mildest criticism of their government.
There are few opportunities inside the country to monitor the government’s human rights record, to hold officials to account, or to access justice. After elections in 2015 that did not meet international standards, the government holds 100 percent of the seats in federal and regional parliaments, preventing any serious parliamentary debate. The courts have little independence on politically sensitive cases and the misuse of the anti-terrorism law is illustrated through the ongoing trial of an opposition leader and advocate for non-violence, Bekele Gerba, the ongoing trial of a former World Bank translator, Pastor Omot Agwa, and the conviction of numerous journalists on trumped-up charges. Numerous restrictions on independent media and nongovernmental organizations result in little scrutiny of abusive security forces. International journalists also face restrictions as three journalists detained during the recent protests can attest to.
Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission should be investigating abuses by security forces. But its lack of independence was underscored by its oral report on the protests to parliament in June. It concluded that the lethal force used by security forces in Oromia was proportionate to the risk they faced from the protesters. It is not known whether a written version of the report is available to justify such a seemingly politicized conclusion. The briefing was issued just a few days before Human Rights Watch issued a report describing the excessive use of force that resulted in the killing of an estimated 400 people during the first six months of the protests.
International scrutiny of Ethiopia’s rights record has also been lacking despite its June election to the UN Security Council, and its membership on the UN Human Rights Council – which requires it to uphold the “highest standards of human rights” and cooperate with UN monitors. Ethiopia has refused entry to all UN special rapporteurs since 2007. Among the outstanding requests are from the special rapporteurs on torture, freedom of opinion and expression, and peaceful assembly.
Ethiopia’s allies should back the call from the UN human rights high commissioner and press for an international investigation. Such a move will send a powerful and overdue message to the Ethiopian government that its security forces cannot shoot and kill peaceful protesters with impunity. And it will also send an important message to the victims and families that their pleas for justice are being heard.
Ethiopia’s allies need to urgently embark on a new approach to Ethiopia before the current situation descends into an even more dangerous and irreversible political and human rights crisis. They could play a leading role in pushing for investigative or monitoring mechanisms to hold the government to account for its brutal response to citizens exercising their fundamental rights to expression and assembly — or the toll of the dead and the tortured will continue to rise.
Girma, the young student, says he wants to flee the country once his health improves. “I’m leaving because there will never be justice in my country for what happened to me and the world will not do anything,” he told me. “So I will leave rather than wait for death.”