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When students in Ethiopia started protesting last month against the Ethiopian Government’s proposal to annex territory from the state of Oromia to facilitate the expansion of the capital city Addis Ababa, diasporans mobilized to show their solidarity. As federal “Agazi” security forces cracked down, opening fire on peaceful protesters, placing students on lock-down in their dormitories, and conducting mass arrests, Oromos around the world staged rallies and hunger strikes to raise international awareness and to call on the governments of the countries where they live to withhold aid and put pressure on the Ethiopian Government to respect human rights.
In the first three posts in this series, I discussed the Oromo diaspora’s mobilization to shed light on the human rights violations on the ground, the sharp criticism the government of Ethiopia faced during the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, and the steps the Oromo diaspora in Minnesota is taking to show solidarity and press for accountability in Ethiopia. This final post tells some of the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and also covers the Ethiopian government’s formal response to the UN review and offers some suggestions for next steps.
Not “voiceless,” but deliberately silenced by Ethiopian government
“We need to be a voice for the voiceless” has been a common refrain from the diaspora. But in my view, the students and others who are protesting in Ethiopia are far from voiceless. They have been bravely marching, placing their lives and academic careers on the line, to express their opposition to the government’s “Integrated Development Master Plan for Addis Ababa.” In the words of 2004 Sydney Peace Prize winner Arundhati Roy, “there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
The government controls the media and telecommunications in Ethiopia, effectively placing a stranglehold on open debate and criticism of the government. Historically, efforts by western media, including CNN, to cover events on the ground in Ethiopia have been stymied. The government’s repression and intimidation also create obstacles for independent journalists trying to cover the story from outside the country. I spoke with one U.S.-based reporter who covers the Horn of Africa, and he explained that when he tried to confirm casualty reports, hospital personnel in Ethiopia refused to speak to him, fearing for their jobs.
The Oromia Media Network (OMN), a Minnesota-based satellite news network that has been covering the student protests, offering commentary, and dedicating attention to the diaspora response, reported that on May 2, the Ethiopian government blocked access to its website, and on May 13, began jamming OMN’s satellite transmission. Oromos in Ethiopia have turned to the OMN Facebook page, urging, “Please send us a new frequency.”
The Ethiopian government even attempts to silence social media. One Oromo messaged me on Facebook from an internet cafe in Addis Ababa, but he said that he didn’t feel safe going into too much detail, fearing that the government or people in the cafe were monitoring his communications.
He’s not being paranoid, and the OMN experience is nothing new. The government has used its monopoly control over telecommunications to conduct surveillance of regime opponents, as well as to block websites of opposition groups, media sites, and bloggers. Speaking of bloggers critical of the Ethiopian government, since The Advocates for Human Rights launched this blog series on May 5, I’ve been pleased to see a huge spike in visitors from Ethiopia. We’ve had over 700 views from Ethiopia, and so far there’s no sign that the government is blocking access to The Advocates Post. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.
On May 5, I had a conversation with an Oromo in London who had just spoken with his sister, who the day before had fled to Addis Ababa from Madawalabu University in Bale Robe. She reported that the military had started beating students who were demonstrating at the university. She told her brother that students were unable to get the word out because cell phone and internet service had been turned off. She saw forces kill one student, but feared that there were more casualties. She was able to share the news with her brother only because she had fled 430 kilometers (267 miles) to the capital, where the phones hadn’t been shut off.
New reports that Ethiopian government is inciting inter-ethnic violence
I’ve read reports on social media that the Ethiopian government is provoking inter-ethnic violence by spreading false reports of attacks and planned attacks. With no independent media, it’s safe to conclude that
any reports on official media outlets in Ethiopia reflect the government’s efforts to shape perceptions of reality. When a vacuum exists where independent media should be, rumors—some likely fed by the government—can create fear and misunderstanding.
Outside Ethiopia, diasporans are actively combating efforts to divide opposition voices along ethnic lines. At the three-day rally at the Minnesota State Capitol in the United States, flags of the Ogaden ethnic group were proudly displayed beside Oromo flags. One of the chants was “Oromo, Ogaden, united, we’ll never be defeated!” And Oromos in the diaspora are urging their compatriots to target their protests at the Ethiopian Government, rather than at members of particular ethnic groups.
Diaspora ties are a lifeline for getting the word out
The Ethiopian government is incapable of eradicating the close ties between the Oromo diaspora and Oromos in Ethiopia, and those ties have become a lifeline to get the word out. Here’s just some of what I’ve heard:
These communications between people on the ground and the diaspora could come at great risk. “Intercepted emails and phone calls have been submitted as evidence in trials under the country’s flawed anti-terrorism law.” This fear is palpable to diasporans who are receiving the news. One of the Oromo diasporans who contacted me cautioned that if I were to use his real name in this blog post, his family back in Ethiopia would “be in big danger within 24 hours.”
Remote monitoring can help manage the overwhelming flow of information
Despite these risks, there has been a steady flow of photos and videos on social media showing protest footage, as well as injured protesters, broken-down dormitory room doors, and even graphic images of people who have been killed. Some individuals in the diaspora and diaspora websites have been compiling this information, and the new #OromoProtests website has emerged as both an information portal and a mobilizing tool for diasporans and allies.
But as the U.S.-based reporter I spoke with observed, there is a lot of information in circulation, but it’s hard to “triangulate” it to verify the journalistic “Five Ws.” Late last week, Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) confirmed diaspora reports that federal security forces killed at least three Wollega University student-protesters and have detained hundreds of students.
The Advocates has received several requests for assistance from the Oromo diaspora about how to keep track of information in a systematic way:
We in the diaspora are so overwhelmed with information about arrests, wounding and deaths coming out of Ethiopia. But we do not seem to have institutions that are tracking, documenting, and sharing this information in an appropriate manner. [Do you have] any suggestions for models or examples we can use to set something up just temporarily until we find some more reliable way of managing information?
Remote monitoring is challenging, but critical when human rights violations occur in places like Ethiopia. Our remote monitoring chapter in Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities, offers some suggestions and resources. And our chapter on additional monitoring tools identifies other tools, like the Ushahidi open-source software, which was first deployed to map and document user-generated reports of violence after the 2007 elections in Kenya.
Grilling at the UN: The Ethiopian Government responds
My second blog post in this series highlighted the May 6 Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations. Two days later, the UN issued its report of the UPR working group on Ethiopia, which serves as the Government of Ethiopia’s formal response to the review. In the report, the government identifies recommendations it accepts and others it rejects, as well as a few it wants until September 2014 to think about. Here’s how the Ethiopian Government responded to the recommendations I highlighted in that second post:
Recommendations the government asserts are “already implemented”
You can make a difference
Reports from the diaspora suggest that the situation on the ground in Oromia is going from bad to worse. Students continue their courageous protests, while the Ethiopian Government expands mass arrests and expulsions and reportedly is attempting to incite inter-ethnic conflict. But there are several things the Oromo diaspora and people who want to show solidarity can do to help:
Urge UN special procedures, especially the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, to follow up on the Netherlands’ accepted recommendation and conduct a country visit to investigate the government’s response to the student protests in Oromia.
What will you do to make a difference? Please share your suggestions and requests in the comments!
This post is the fourth in a four-part series about human rights in Ethiopia. Part 1 describes the important role the Oromo diaspora is playing in remotely monitoring recent human rights developments in Ethiopia. Part 2 highlights the May 6 Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations. Part 3 explores the Oromo diaspora’s strategies for showing solidarity with the Oromo students while pushing for human rights and holding perpetrators accountable for the violence against peaceful demonstrators.
More posts in this series: