Report by CIVIL RIGHT DEFENDERS http://www.civilrightsdefenders.org/
Ethiopia is once again witnessing another round of mass crackdowns by the authorities as scores of protesters have been killed and hundreds arrested in recent weeks. The government must be held accountable for these murders, provide redress, and most importantly of all allow citizens’ the right to express their grievances and demands.
Students and other members of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromos, have been staging protests in many parts of Oromia regional state since mid November 2015. The protests were originally sparked the previous year and resulted in the death and arrest of numerous protestors. The protests arose from a draft plan called the “Addis Ababa and Oromia Special Zone Integrated Master Plan” which would see the displacement of communities and farmers dispossessed them from their lands, without prior consultation and proper compensation.
“Land rights are crucial when it comes the realisation of other human rights especially for people whose economic, social and cultural lives are strongly attached and dependent on the land. In other words they go hand in hand. In light of this, the students’ demand a constructive consultation process and the initiation of an adequate compensation scheme in Ethiopia as a start when it comes to acknowledging basic rights.” said Robert Hårdh, Executive Director at Civil Rights Defenders
The excessive use of force by armed police and military personnel has inflamed the situation turning the peaceful protests into violent clashes which has subsequently led to death and the destruction of property.
While the main opposition party in the region, the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), put the number of people killed at 85, Civil Rights Defenders accessed a list of victims compiled by activists who quoted the numbers at 119. The Government, meanwhile, has vaguely stated the casualties as being “high in numbers.”
Silent protests and sit-ins have continued to materialise in several areas and institutions while house-to-house searches and widespread detentions have taken place throughout the Oromia region, according to local residents. Some students, suspected of taking part in the demonstration, have been reportedly expelled by University administrations although to date this has not been verified by independent sources.
In a late but noteworthy move, the Ethiopian government recently announced that the ‘Master Plan’ would not be implemented without consultation from the public, and even admits that the demonstrators’ have a legitimate right to protest.
Despite this symbolic gesture, senior government officials have also engaged in contradictory provocative rhetoric.
The government is consistently labeling the protestors as having links with “terror groups” with aim of attempting to spark a “revolution.” Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn accused the protesters as being misled by “destructive forces” whose aim is to “destabilise the area.”
Another senior official has likened the protesters to genies “let out by OFC (Oromo Federalist Congress), Ginbot 7 and OLF (Oromo Liberation Front)” that should be put back in the bottle. The later two groups are based outside Ethiopia and have been branded as “terrorists” by the parliament.
Allegations such as these echo previous incidents where the Ethiopian authorities have used the “terror label” to silence critics and civil society groups and thus constitute a worrying development.
The killing of peaceful protestors, harassment and mass arrest of those suspected of organising protests will only harm the already shaky human rights record of Ethiopia. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, which Ethiopia is party to, provide that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly includes the right to participate in peaceful assemblies, meetings, protests, strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations.
In a further act, which has led to the escalation of the crisis, the government has also attempted to limit the flow of information to and from the areas affected by the protests. In some areas government operatives have been seen removing satellite dishes from the rooftops of private residences.
Last week, the head of the nation’s Broadcast Authority told a parliamentary committee that he has warned media houses to pay attention to the content of their reports of the protests coming out of the Oromia region.
A foreign correspondent based in Addis Ababa recently wrote that a translator who had traveled with him to one of the protest areas was subjected to interrogation and mistreatment. A journalist working for the state owned broadcaster, Fikadu Mirkana, was also arrested during the week. Known for persecuting journalists, few independent reports are available about developments in Ethiopia particularly in times such as this. Social media, particularly Facebook, remains the principal source of information and exchange though the country’s Internet penetration rate is among the lowest in the world.
“The flow of independent information can be an influential tool in avoiding public unrest, while acting as a catalyst in exposing human rights abuses especially in times of protests. Furthermore, denying people access to information contravenes Ethiopia’s obligation to respects citizens’ rights regarding access to information,” added Robert Hårdh