The death of Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi in August 2012 after two decades in power sparked hope that the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) would undertake reforms to open up the political system and loosen the harsh restrictions imposed on civil society, the media, and opposition parties.However, one year into the administration of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Meles’s successor, not much has changed in the highly repressive country.Meles’s rule had become increasingly authoritarian, particularly after the disputed 2005 elections, when security forces killed some 200 people and imprisoned tens of thousands, including leaders of the opposition, journalists, and civil society activists.
In the years that followed, Meles presided over a system that criminalized dissent through the use of repressive laws and an unrelenting crackdown by security forces. At the time of Meles’s death, the EPRDF held all but one of the 547 seats in the federal parliament and exercised a growing dominance over all forms of public life in Ethiopia.
Civic groups and independent media crushed
Repressive laws that effectively stifled dissent continue to be enforced under the new leadership. The virtual ban on foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) imposed by the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSP), coupled with governmental intrusion into the operations of human rights groups, has resulted in minimal independent monitoring and reporting on the country’s dismal human rights situation.
The CSP forced prominent human rights groups to abandon their core missions and to scale back operations significantly. Ethiopia’s leading human rights NGO, Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO, now HRCO), had to close 9 of its 12 regional offices and cut 85 percent of its staff.
The Ethiopian Women Lawyers’ Association (EWLA) cut nearly 70 percent of its staff. In December 2009, the Charities and Societies Agency (ChSA), the regulatory body created under the CSP, ordered the freezing of these two groups’ bank accounts, claiming that the money had been received in violation of the ban on foreign funding – effectively a retroactive application of the law. HRCO and EWLA’s appeals to the courts were not successful.
Eight directives issued in July 2011 by the ChSA to facilitate implementation of the CSP have exacerbated the grim situation of prodemocracy and human rights NGOs. In particular, the directive imposing a 30 percent cap on administrative expenses further undermined the capacity of these groups.
Meanwhile, another 2009 law, the antiterrorism proclamation, became the authorities’ primary tool for imprisoning journalists and members of legitimate opposition parties.
Prominent journalists Woubshet Taye and Reeyot Alemu and blogger Eskinder Nega are still in jail, serving lengthy prison sentences for charges brought against them under the antiterrorism proclamation. In April 2013, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared Eskinder Nega’s detention arbitrary and a violation of international human rights law and called for his immediate release.
Although independent journalism persists on websites hosted overseas, the government has invested heavily in the technical capacity to conduct widespread internet filtering, with the aim of denying Ethiopian users access to content that is critical of government policies and actions.
Assault on the political opposition
Since their strong showing in the 2005 elections was overshadowed by the violence that followed the announcement of results, opposition political parties have also been the target of a continuous crackdown. This has fostered a climate of fear and created a profound imbalance in the political landscape that heavily favors the EPRDF.
The antiterrorism law has been used to sentence notable opposition politicians such as Andualem Arage of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party and Bekele Gerba of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement (OFDM) to harsh jail terms, with some receiving life in prison.
Human rights commitments ignored
At the conclusion of its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the UN Human Rights Council in December 2009, Ethiopia agreed to accept 99 of the 142 recommendations put forward by members of the council’s Working Group. Notable recommendations dealt with concerns over implementation of the antiterrorism proclamation; political prisoners; endangered freedoms of expression, association, and assembly; and formulating a national plan of action on human rights.
While such a plan was unveiled in March 2013, little to no progress has been made to improve the operating environment for civil society and independent media. Despite the flow of significant funding from donors, the national Human Rights Commission has not become an independent watchdog that monitors, investigates, and reports on violations.
Ethiopia will come up for another review under the UPR system at the April/May 2014 session. This will provide an opportunity to evaluate the extent to which recommendations made by the Working Group and accepted by Ethiopia have been addressed.
The sad reality is that the very groups best equipped to engage most productively in the UPR process are those that the government successfully crippled using the CSP. Well-founded fears of reprisal further discourage domestic human rights groups from engaging in the UPR process, as the Ethiopian government has been intolerant of organizations that go public with criticism of its human rights record.
Reforms needed ahead of elections in 2015
Ethiopia’s next national elections are set to take place in May 2015. Now is the time to commence political reforms designed to avoid a repetition of flawed elections in 2010 (national) and 2013 (local). In both years, the EPRDF totally controlled the electoral process, capturing more than 99 percent of the legislative seats nationwide.
While recent moves, such as allowing large-scale protest rallies, are encouraging, these need to be fortified with institutional and legal measures aimed at opening up the operating environment for civil society, the media, and the political opposition.
As he marks the end of his first year in office, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn should commence reforms to lay the groundwork for competitive, transparent, free, and fair democratic elections in 2015. In particular, the government should:
Intensify efforts to implement the recommendations of the UPR Working Group, especially those calling for measures to support the work of human rights defenders and guarantee genuine freedom of expression and association.
Amend the restrictive provisions of the CSP and subsequent directives, particularly those restricting foreign funding for human rights work and imposing the 30 percent cap on administrative expenses.
Allow the media and civil society to operate freely by refraining from using laws like the antiterrorism proclamation to persecute journalists and human rights defenders in connection with their work.
Eliminate barriers that prohibit legitimate opposition groups from freely organizing public events and reaching out to their constituencies.
Encourage open and all-inclusive dialogue on key political and governance issues by granting alternative voices unfettered access to state-owned media and other public platforms, including the internet.
– Freedom House