December 10, 2013 is Human Rights Day (HRD). Proclaimed in 1950 by the United Nations as a marker for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in 1993 as the establishment of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, HRD is a solemn day to remind us of the dire human rights situation in Ethiopia. Thousands of courageous political prisoners languish in the country’s notorious jails without due process as do many prisoners of conscience (such as journalists and religious leaders).
It may be recalled that the Ethiopian people were subjected to unbelievable atrocities by the military (Derg) government as well as groups opposed to it in the 1970s and 1980s. After a partial restoration of the freedoms of speech and association in the 1990s under the ethnicist EPRDF government, the rising demand for a meaningful exercise of citizen rights and political engagement since 2004 has been met with draconian laws, mass arrests, and miscarriage of justice with impunity. Ethiopia annually is ranked with alarming consistency among the worst countries as a routine violator of human and political rights by such international observers as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and the U.S. Department of State.
We need only mention some of the more notable actions in the country over the past five years:
- On the heels major electoral losses to the opposition parties in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the defacto one-party state summarily arrested opposition politicians and some 2000 demonstrators, and killed 193 peaceful protesters in the streets.
- This was followed by a massive recruitment of the youth to join the ruling party which swelled ruling-party membership to some 5 million. The recruits are trained and paid to constitute an ever expanding network of control of citizens down to street blocks in the cities and isolated hamlets in the rural areas.
- The intensification of the suppression of political dissent aimed at incapacitating independent political parties, decimating the independent media, and hamstringing independent NGOs was enshrined in law in 2009. That year, a draconian Charities and Societies Law was passed which, among other things, prohibited local charities from engaging in human rights and voter education activities if they receive more than 10% of their income from foreign sources or from soliciting domestic resources in excess of USD 2,500 before registration as well as engaging in income generating activities that are only incidental to their purposes. This plus the almost unlimited authority of the NGO regulatory agency has had the effect of nullifying their right to free speech, advocacy, and international contact of local NGOs. As if this is not enough, the politically insecure regime enacted in 2009 the universally condemned Anti-Terrorism Law whose broad sweep criminalizes virtually any criticism of government policy. Predictably, this law has been deployed as a thinly disguised excuse for politically-motivated arrests of opposition leaders, bloggers and print journalists, including Andualem Aragie, Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Wubshet Taye, and notable leaders of the Muslim Community who resisted serious government interference in their religious affairs.
- Ethiopians have also been subjected to unprecedented internal displacements and orchestrated labor exports to the Middle East which has opened them to abuse an appalling and inhuman mistreatment we are witnessing in Saudi Arabia. Pastoral communities in the Gambella and Omo Valley regions have been coercively displaced from their ancestral lands to make way for mega farms leased to foreign investors, and mega power or irrigation projects—with little planning or compensation. Furthermore, tens of thousands of young Ethiopians, desperate to escape chronic unemployment and government harassment, are being killed and brazenly subjected to physical and mental abuse in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and several Mediterranean countries while their own government looks the other way.