“Little Oromia” Unites to Advocate for Justice and Human Rights in Ethiopia

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Last Sunday afternoon, a steady stream of people poured into the Oromo Community of Minnesota’s meeting hall in St. Paul. They gathered for a forum to discuss how the Oromo people living outside Ethiopia–the Oromo diaspora–could show solidarity with Oromo students in Ethiopia, whose peaceful protests over the past two weeks have been met with gunfire and loss of life.

Minnesota’s Oromo diaspora movement embraces diversity, is united by a common cause

The Oromo Community of Minnesota hall was packed for the forum on Sunday.
The Oromo Community of Minnesota hall was packed for the forum on Sunday.

The people who had gathered represented great diversity, but were also united by a common cause. As best I understood at the time (I had not yet enlisted Kinini Jegeno, the young man sitting next to me, to interpret), the gathering began with three different religious leaders–a Muslim, a Seventh Day Adventist, and another Christian–leading prayers for the people who had been killed and injured. (As I noted in my first blog post in this series, the Oromo people are split almost equally between the Muslim and Christian faiths.)

One speaker asked all of the women in the audience to raise their hands, noting that they were well-represented and should make their voices heard. And one of my former students remarked that many Oromo youths were also actively engaged in the forum, and were not deferring to their elders as is often the case in such gatherings.

Global Oromo diaspora looks to Minnesota’s “Little Oromia” to take the lead

The stakes were high. Jaafar Ali, a journalist in the Oromo diaspora who lives in Norway, reminded the audience that the Oromo diaspora calls Minnesota “Little Oromia” because it is home to the largest Oromo population outside of Ethiopia. Ali emphasized that Oromos around the world were hoping Minnesota could lay the groundwork for a successful response.

Community adopts a grassroots approach

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My tireless volunteer interpreter, Kinini Jegeno, summarized much of the 3-hour meeting for me.

Although the President of the Oromo Community of Minnesota, Mathias T. Gudina, convened the meeting, he made it clear that he was there to facilitate, not to lead or tell the group what to do. He encouraged members of the community to come forward and share their ideas for showing solidarity with the protesters and responding to the mass arrests, restrictions on free expression and assembly, and federal security forces’ use of lethal force.

Each speaker had up to 2 minutes to take the microphone and offer suggestions. Several dozen people took the floor, and many called for the Oromo community to set aside differences and work together toward their common goals. The audience sat in rapt attention, eagerly hearing each suggestion, and sometimes breaking out in applause or cheers of support.

Oromos unite to advocate for victims, justice

After nearly three hours of comments, the organizers took a brief recess and then reported back with a list of all the ideas that members of the community had offered. By consensus, they arrived at several concrete action steps.

Nearly every action step could be supported by resources in The Advocates for Human Rights’ diaspora toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities. That’s no coincidence. We developed the toolkit in response to decades of requests from diaspora communities about how they can be more effective advocates for human rights in their countries of origin or ancestry. In considering advocacy strategies, diaspora communities may want to consult the first part of Chapter 7: Advocacy, which discusses the importance of defining advocacy goals, the steps to developing an advocacy strategy, leadership and organization, framing messages, mobilization, and measuring progress.

Here are some of the action steps the group selected, along with some relevant resources from Paving Pathways that might be of assistance as the Oromo diaspora works on implementing its plans:

1. Hold a rally on Friday, May 9, at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, starting at 9:00 am

May 7, 2014 rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt (Photo credit: Caaya Tokkummaa Oromoo Masrii, facebook)
May 7, 2014 rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt (Photo credit: Caaya Tokkummaa Oromoo Masrii, facebook)

The group discussed whether to shift the rally to Thursday to accommodate religious observances, but instead they decided that the rally would begin on Friday and continue on throughout the weekend, so people of all faiths could participate. Indeed, most Oromo diaspora groups around the world are staging rallies on Friday, including groups in 11 U.S. cities (Chicago, Columbus,  Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Portland, St. Paul, San Francisco, and Washington, DC), 6 Canadian cities (Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Vancouver, and Winnipeg), and 10 other countries: Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and Yemen.

The Oromo diaspora in Egypt elected to hold its rally on Wednesday, generating some initial media interest. And in conjunction with the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia’s human rights record, on Tuesday Oromos in the Washington, DC area rallied in front of the Ethiopian Embassy:

Paving Pathways’ advocacy chapter includes a section on public advocacy that explains the role of rallies and other actions designed to raise public awareness about human rights issues.

2. Hold a hunger strike May 9-12

Hunger strikes have gained attention as an important part of the immigration reform movement over the past few years. Diasporans may want to take a look at the strategies developed by the “Fast for Families” campaign.

Amane Bedaso, President of the International-Oromo Youth-Association, posted a photo on facebook (top) to announce her plans to participate in the hunger strike May 9-12. Photos on social media sites like facebook, twitter, and instagram can help generate awareness about a hunger strike or similar campaign. See Appendix C of Paving Pathways for best practices on using social media for effective human rights advocacy.

3. Raise funds for medical and burial expenses for victims and their families

Remittances from diasporans to the Global South amounted to over $400 billion in 2012, with $656 million flowing into Ethiopia in 2013. Many remittances assist friends and family members with living expenses, school fees, and business start-up costs. But in times of tragedy, remittances can help victims of human rights violations regain their health or mourn their dead.

The Oromo Community of Minnesota is a 501(c)(3).
The Oromo Community of Minnesota is a 501(c)(3).

Diaspora organizations that gather funds and send them to individuals or groups in their countries of origin should be mindful of the relevant laws, both in the country where the diaspora group is based and in the country where the funds are sent. For example, the Oromo Community of Minnesota, as a registered 501(c)(3) organization, can offer donors certain tax benefits.

Chapter 11 of Paving Pathways, on capacity-building, includes information about forming a non-profit, financial management, fundraising, and complying with the law. Ethiopia’s Charities and Societies Proclamation–roundly criticized during Tuesday’s UN review and described on page 309 of Chapter 11–subjects Ethiopian organizations to harsh sanctions if they work on certain human rights issues and receive more than 10% of their funding from outside the country. So diaspora groups should be careful to avoid triggering those sanctions when they provide funding to groups inside Ethiopia.

4. Engage in advocacy with elected officials

Community members offered their advocacy suggestions for nearly 3 hours (Photo credit: Big Z, facebook)
Community members offered their advocacy suggestions for nearly 3 hours (Photo credit: Big Z, facebook)

The Oromo community members at the forum agreed that they needed to engage in advocacy targeting their federal lawmakers in the United States, particularly because the US government provides substantial funding to the government of Ethiopia. The Advocacy chapter of Paving Pathways includes a section on how diaspora groups can conduct advocacy targeting the government of the country where they live. Those strategies include: writing to elected officials; meeting with officials or their staff; legislative advocacy; and holding a congressional briefing to educate lawmakers and legislative staff about an issue of concern.

5. Work on bringing the perpetrators to justice

Chapter 8 of Paving Pathways explores strategies for promoting accountability for human rights violations. The most accessible accountability mechanism is often in the country where the human rights violations occurred. But as Botswana pointed out at the UN review on Tuesday, Ethiopia does not have an independent judicial system. And as Finland and Montenegro noted, Ethiopia lacks effective, independent complaint mechanisms for individuals to raise allegations of mistreatment by security, military, and law enforcement authorities.

Chapter 8 describes alternative accountability mechanisms that may be available outside the country where the violations occur, including criminal prosecutions and civil litigation under the laws of other countries, travel restrictions, and international criminal tribunals.

6. Establish a crisis response team

One thoughtful young Oromo woman, an alumna of South High, encouraged the group to establish a worldwide crisis response team that would be in place to respond to urgent situations such as the recent violence and arrests in Oromia. She noted that if a team were in place, it could be deployed more quickly to implement effective strategies to address breaking events.

Human rights defenders like the students and other protesters in Oromia often face threats, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and violence from security forces. Appendix Q is a toolkit of resources for human rights defenders on the ground. It includes information about emergency grants, advocacy tools, intergovernmental emergency response mechanisms, regional networks of human rights defenders, and international non-governmental organizations that assist human rights defenders who are in need. Part D of Chapter 11, on capacity-building, goes into more depth on safety and security issues, and explains how to use emergency response procedures at the United Nations and at regional mechanisms like the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to protect human rights defenders and enlist help when serious human rights violations are happening or imminent.

7. Create committees on media outreach, finance, and legal advocacy

It’s important for people involved in an advocacy campaign to collaborate, share expertise, and organize their work so the campaign does not rest on the shoulders of just a few people. Chapter 7 of Paving Pathways includes a section on media advocacy, and Chapter 11 covers financial matters. Chapters 8, 9, and 10 explore avenues for legal advocacy in the context of accountability, advocacy with the United Nations, and advocacy with regional human rights mechanisms. A legal advocacy team might also lead the important work of conducting systematic remote monitoring of human rights violations, and of documenting them in a report–topics covered in Chapters 5 and 6 of Paving Pathways.

8. Write a press release

As many governments recognized at the UN on Tuesday, journalists in Ethiopia are not allowed to operate freely, and many have been jailed for their work. Diasporans from closed societies like Ethiopia can help get the facts out by acting as liasons between their personal contacts in their country of origin and the media in the country where they live. In addition to a section on media advocacy, Paving Pathways includes a sample press release.

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Little Oromia is united and ready to show the world the strength of its ideas, enthusiasm, and passion as it moves forward. We at The Advocates for Human Rights hope Paving Pathways will serve as a helpful resource as the Oromo diaspora comes together to advocate for justice, accountability, and human rights in Ethiopia.

This post is the third 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 4 tells the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family members on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and recaps the Ethiopian Government’s response to the UN review.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

Top photo credit: Amane Bedaso, facebook

More posts in this series:

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

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Update: This blog post was updated on May 30, 2014, after the Armenian Mission to the UN in Geneva contacted The Advocates with the final, official version of the statement that was delivered on May 6. The changes do not have any particular relevance to the substance of this post. To see the statement that was uploaded to the UN website and included in the original post, please click here.

We often say at The Advocates for Human Rights that making progress on human rights is running a marathon, not a sprint. For example, the United Nations’ newest human rights mechanism, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), takes place just once every four and a half years for each country.

The Ethiopian Government's delegation to the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, 2014, chaired by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebre-Christos
The Ethiopian Government’s delegation to the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, 2014, chaired by State Minister of Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebre-Christos

So it was particularly fortuitous that the UPR of Ethiopia took place this morning, as Oromo students continue a second week of demonstrations across the federal state of Oromia to protest the Ethiopian Government’s plans to annex that state’s lands in order to expand the territory of Addis Ababa, and as the Oromo diaspora gears up for protests around the world on Friday to show their support for the students on the ground.

Despite the UPR’s early hour–2:00 this morning here in Minnesota, or “Little Oromia” as the diaspora calls it–social media have been buzzing about the review. And as the 3 1/2 hour review progressed, the Oromo diaspora reported on breaking news of more student protests in Oromia.

A quick primer on the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review
Every country that is a member of the United Nations participates in the UPR once every 4 1/2 years. Unlike the opt-in treaty-body review processes, where independent human rights experts conduct the examination, the UPR is a peer-to-peer diplomatic process. Governments comment on the human rights records of other governments. As you might expect, some governments shower their allies with praise, while other governments use the UPR to offer sharp criticism. Each statement typically includes some words of praise, some statements of concern, and some recommendations for the government under review. Later, the government under review must respond to each recommendation, stating whether it accepts or rejects it.

Like other UN human rights mechanisms, the UPR process has a role for civil society. Last September civil society organizations around the world submitted “stakeholder reports” about human rights conditions on the ground in Ethiopia. These reports are supposed to cover: (1) what progress the government has made on any recommendations it accepted during the last round of review; and (2) any developments since the last review.

Members of the Ogaden ethnic group from Ethiopia, living in diaspora in Europe, protest in front of the United Nations in March 2014
Members of the Ogaden ethnic group from Ethiopia, living in diaspora in Europe, protest in front of the United Nations in March 2014

Diaspora civil society groups play critical role in UN reviews
Diaspora advocacy is critical when the UN reviews the human rights records of closed societies like Ethiopia, where local groups may not feel free to criticize the government openly. The Advocates worked with the Oromo diaspora in Minnesota to prepare a stakeholder report for Ethiopia’s UPR, just as we have done for some of the UN’s treaty body review mechanisms. Other diaspora groups are also engaged in the process. For example, groups like the International Oromo Women’s Organization, the UK and Australia and branches of the Oromia Support Group, and the Toronto-based Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa also submitted stakeholder reports for today’s UPR.

Earlier this year, we did in-person and email advocacy with the Geneva missions of governments that we thought might be receptive to the issues we raised in our report. And over the weekend, we followed up with an update on the student protests and government crack-down in Oromia. Watching the live webcast this morning, we were relieved to see that many governments took up some of the Oromo diaspora’s concerns.

The Advocates’ new diaspora toolkit, Paving Pathways, includes a chapter on how to conduct advocacy at the United Nations, and another on advocacy with regional human rights mechanisms like the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Armenia draws attention to diaspora ties, recent casualties in Oromia

Lilia Petrosyan delivers Armenia's statement at the UPR on May 6, 2014
Lilia Petrosyan delivers Armenia’s statement at the UPR on May 6, 2014

A whopping 119 governments signed up to make statements during the review. Because of the limited time and intense interest, each government had just 65 seconds to make its points.You can watch the full review here.

The Armenian government offered the most direct commentary on the student protests in Oromia, and also referenced the Armenian diaspora in Ethiopia:

We would like to stress the friendly relations existing between our 2 nations. The presence of the Armenian community in Ethiopia has a centuries old history. Armenia particularly appreciates the generosity of the Ethiopian people and government, who hosted and integrated the survivors of the Armenian Genocide at the beginning of the 20th century.

Armenia commends the commitment of Ethiopia to the promotion of human rights, including respect for minority rights, cultural diversity and tolerance. In this regard, we are concerned about the reports of recent casualties in the state of Oromia. Armenia hopes that Ethiopia will continue to make efforts to further promote human rights, as a basis for encouraging tolerance and diversity in the country. . . .We have 2 recommendations for Ethiopia:

1) To further promote tolerance and dialogue between different ethnic and religious groups.

2) To further develop and expand human rights awareness-raising programs in the country.

Perhaps reflecting last-minute changes to incorporate a reference to the government’s use of lethal force against student protesters in Oromia last week, the version of Armenia’s statement originally uploaded to the UN website includes the words “New Version” in handwriting at the top.

Governments press Ethiopia to address inter-ethnic conflict, allow free expression, open up civil society
Governments raised a variety of important human rights issues, many of which directly concern the Oromo people, as reflected in our stakeholder report. (Click the country name to read the full text of the country’s statement.)

  • Violence and mistreatment by security forces
    • Costa Rica urged Ethiopia to take urgent measures to investigate torture and extrajudicial killings committed by the national defense forces of Ethiopia.
    • Finland and Montenegro recommended that Ethiopia ensure that is has clear, independent, and effective complaints mechanisms in place for individuals to raise allegations of mistreatment by security, military, and law enforcement authorities and prison officials.
    • Rwanda called on Ethiopia to set up police and military training on human rights.
  • Forcible resettlement of farmers and pastoralists
    • Austria recommended that Ethiopia’s national human rights institutions be equipped with the resources and capacities needed to independently investigate, and provide appeals and redress for, alleged human rights violations in relation to the resettlement of communities through Ethiopia’s Commune Development Program. The United Kingdom also expressed support for credible mechanisms to investigate allegations of abuses by special police in relation to relocation programs.
    • Bolivia encouraged Ethiopia to protect the rights of farmers and other rural workers.
    • Rwanda called on Ethiopia to strengthen measures to ensure food security.
    • Malaysia and Thailand urged Ethiopia to step up efforts to improve health services, especially in rural areas.
    • Morocco recommended that Ethiopia ensure that all segments of society benefit from economic growth.
  • Ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution
    • Namibia urged Ethiopia to enhance the institutional and financial capacities of the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission to effectively carry out its mandate, especially with regard to its working relations with the Oromo, Ogaden, Gambella, and Somali communities.
    • The Holy See urged Ethiopia to improve its outreach to all ethnic communities to actively participate in the political process.
    • Argentina, Bolivia, and Nicaragua urged the Ethiopian Government to combat racism, intolerance, and other forms of discrimination directed at vulnerable groups.
    • Burundi and the Holy See, like Armenia, recommended that Ethiopia expand activities to promote inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue. Canada made a similar recommendation to address inter-religious tensions.
    • Tunisia called on Ethiopia to address education discrimination, and Sudan recommended that Ethiopia expand primary education in students’ mother tongue.
    • Malaysia, the Maldives, and Namibia encouraged Ethiopia to improve the quality of education for children, especially in rural areas.
  • Freedom of expression and association for opposition political parties, human rights defenders
    • Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States recommended that Ethiopia fully implement its constitutional guarantees of freedom of association, expression, and assembly for independent political parties, ethnic and religious groups, and non-governmental organizations.
    • Canada urged Ethiopia to fully protect members of opposition groups, political activists, and journalists from arbitrary detention. Estonia called on Ethiopia to end harassment of political opposition party members, journalists, and human rights defenders. Finland recommended that Ethiopia take further measures to ensure the safety and freedom of action of human rights defenders.
  • Restrictions on civil society, media; anti-terrorism measures
    • Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, and the United States recommended that Ethiopia abolish or amend its Charities and Societies Proclamation to allow non-governmental organizations to operate more effectively and to receive funding from outside the country.
    • Australia, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, and Switzerland urged Ethiopia to narrow its definition of terrorism under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and exclude the practice of journalism from the definition, to ensure protections for freedom of expression and assembly, and to better allow non-governmental organizations to function. The United States called for Ethiopia to ensure that the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation is applied apolitically.
    • The Czech Republic also called on Ethiopia to immediately release all journalists detained for their professional activities, including the bloggers and journalists arrested in April 2014 and those jailed earlier, such as Mr. Nega and Ms Alemu.
    • Estonia, Ireland and South Korea urged Ethiopia to stop online censorship and respect freedom of the press. Ghana recommended that Ethiopia decriminalize defamation.
    • Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and France encouraged Ethiopia to amend its Mass Media Proclamation to bring it in line with international human rights standards.
  • Due process and judicial independence
    • Botswana expressed concern about intimidation, harassment, threats, and firing of judges who resist political pressure, and called on Ethiopia to ensure the full independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
    • Switzerland called on Ethiopia to ensure the right to a fair trial.
  • Disappearances, torture in detention facilities
    • Argentina, France, Japan, Paraguay, and Tunisia recommended that the Ethiopian Government take further actions to address enforced disappearances, such as ratifying the Convention on Enforced Disappearances.
    • Austria and recommended that Ethiopia train all personnel in detention facilities to investigate and prosecute all alleged cases of torture. Paraguay and Spain also called for efforts to prevent torture in detention. The United Kingdom expressed support for credible mechanisms to investigate allegations of mistreatment of prisoners. Bhutan and Russia recommended that Ethiopia improve prison conditions. Kyrgyzstan called on Ethiopia to add a definition of torture to its criminal code that includes all elements contained in the Convention Against Torture.
    • Hungary, Paraguay, and Tunisia urged Ethiopia to grant the Red Cross and other independent international mechanisms immediate, full, and genuine access to all detention facilities in Ethiopia, and Hungary expressed concern about allegations of arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of detainees, including torture, rape, and prolonged incommunicado detention.

Recommendations to engage with UN Special Procedures

Some of the recommendations had to do with other United Nations procedures:

  • Ghana and Hungary, Japan, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and Uruguay recommended that Ethiopia permit visits from all UN special procedures mandate-holders.
  • The United States called on Ethiopia to allow the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Association to conduct a country visit, and the United Kingdom recommended that Ethiopia invite the Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit the country.
  • Spain also urged Ethiopia to respond to individual communications from special procedures mandate-holders.

The Oromo diaspora may want to use some of these special procedures, described in more detail in our chapters of Paving Pathways on UN advocacy and capacity-building, to submit urgent action letters and request country visits to investigate the situation on the ground in Oromia.

What’s next?
The Ethiopian Government will have several months to examine the recommendations, but then it will have to say definitively whether it accepts or rejects each one. Civil society in Ethiopia, with support from the diaspora, can then lobby for implementation of any accepted recommendations. And the diaspora can engage in remote monitoring of rejected recommendations to continue to shed light on ongoing human rights violations.

There’s also an upcoming opportunity for advocacy at the United Nations specifically relating to the rights of children in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and July 1 is the deadline for civil society groups to share information with the human rights experts on the Committee on the Rights of the Child as they prepare for their 2015 review of Ethiopia. Oromos in the diaspora who are concerned about students in Oromia who are under age 18 and who have faced violence, threats, and arrests because of their participation in protests may want to engage in more systematic remote monitoring and then write a report to bring the issue to the attention of the Committee. They may also want to raise other human rights concerns relevant to children in Ethiopia.

Advocacy at the UN is a long process, but when governments stifle dissent and ignore civil society, sometimes international pressure can prompt incremental reforms. Persistent advocacy from diaspora groups is essential to the process.  The Oromo diaspora is up to the task. We know, after all, that the Oromo people are particularly talented distance runners and can run the marathon needed to improve human rights in Ethiopia.

This post is the second 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 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. Part 4 tells the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family members on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and recaps the Ethiopian Government’s response to the UN review.

By Amy Bergquist, staff attorney for the International Justice Program of The Advocates for Human Rights.

More posts in this series:

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

“Little Oromia” Unites to Advocate for Justice and Human Rights in Ethiopia

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review