Cameroon must act to protect its children from Boko Haram

Boko Haram in Cameroon
In 2015, Boko Haram released images taken at a training camp for child soldiers in Nigeria (Photo: Al-Urwa Al-Wuthqa Media). Image link and article link.

During my time this summer as an intern at The Advocates for Human Rights, I’ve encountered many horror stories of human rights violations around the world. Yet none has shaken me more than the terrorist group Boko Haram’s new war tactic: kidnapping children and deploying them as suicide bombers.

Since its uprising against the Nigerian government in 2009, the militant Islamic group with allegiance to ISIS has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced nearly 2.3 million people. According to the Global Terrorism Index, it is the world’s deadliest terrorist group over ISIS. Much of the world, however, learned of Boko Haram only after its abduction of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014. Most of the girls remain missing to this day.

The latest development in Boko Haram’s violence that has spread beyond Nigeria’s borders is the harrowing use of children in suicide attacks, and the country with the highest incidence is Cameroon. According to UNICEF, 21 suicide attacks involving children took place in Cameroon between January 2014 and February 2016, while there were 17 in Nigeria and two in Chad.

As with children taken by Boko Haram elsewhere, those captured in Cameroon are forced to serve as not only suicide bombers, but also combatants on the front line, human shields, and guards – collectively known as “child soldiers.”

What have Cameroonian authorities done in response to Boko Haram’s increasing exploitation of their children as tools of war?

Cameroon joined a multinational task force to fight against Boko Haram and continues to conduct offensive military operations, but the protection of child soldiers embroiled in the conflict has not been a priority of the government. In its periodic report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, ― a body of experts monitoring implementation of the human rights treaty specific to children ― Cameroon does not make a single reference to child soldiers nor Boko Haram’s use of children in its aggression.

Furthermore, the government does not offer organized support to former child soldiers. As Cameroonian forces have recaptured territories held by Boko Haram, some abductees have been found and released. According to UNICEF, however, many are not even welcomed home and instead viewed with deep suspicion because of the fear that they were radicalized in captivity. In particular, girls who were forcibly married to their captors and became pregnant as a result of rape face marginalization and discrimination due to social and cultural norms related to sexual violence. Accused of being Boko Haram wives, they are rejected by relatives and community members.

In the face of egregious abuses committed against Cameroonian children by Boko Haram and the mistreatment persisted by society, the government has been silent for far too long and must take action to better protect its youth from the effects of armed conflict. Instead of penalizing children associated with Boko Haram as was the case in the mass arrest and detainment of Quranic school students in 2014, the government ought to treat them as victims in need of protection.

In July, The Advocates and our Cameroonian partner Centre pour la promotion du droit (Center for the Promotion of Law or CEPROD) submitted a joint report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Child, identifying specific measures that the Cameroon government should enact.

First, the government should harmonize its national legislation with international standards that prohibit the recruitment of children by non-state armed groups such as Boko Haram. Cameroon has ratified both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the accompanying Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Under these treaties, Cameroon has the duty to enact measures to prevent the recruitment of children by armed groups, including the adoption of necessary legal measures. At present, however, Cameroon does not have any law that addresses the use of children by armed groups. Domestic provisions criminalizing this practice must be in place in order to prosecute perpetrators and stop offenses from occurring in the first place.

Second, the Cameroonian government should develop a comprehensive system of demobilization, recovery, and reintegration for children previously under the influence of armed groups. For the fraction of child soldiers who are rescued or able to escape from Boko Haram, life after captivity is supposed to be better. Yet these children are abandoned by their own families and left wholly vulnerable from their torturous experiences under Boko Haram. It is the State’s responsibility to ensure that they are safely moved to rehabilitative centers and to assist them in their physical and psychological recovery as well as their reintegration into society.

Recruiting children to participate in hostilities is a blatant human rights violation under international law. Yet a State’s failure to protect its children from such recruitment is also a violation of its human rights obligation. The Cameroonian government must act now to safeguard the rights of its children.

By: Nayeon Kim, a rising senior at Yale University studying political science and psychology.  She was a 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program  through the Bulldogs on the Lakes program.  

Additional reading:

Joint submission from The Advocates and CEPROD to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on Issues Relating to Children in Conflict with the Law and Protection & Care of Children Affected by Armed Conflict (July 2016)

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The U.S. runs with a devil

The U.S. runs with a devil

You may never have heard of the Oromo people, the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia. You might be surprised to learn that if you are a U.S. taxpayer, you are subsidizing their oppression.

On Tuesday, April 19, a Congressional commission named the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission conducted a hearing on human rights conditions in Ethiopia. The Commission provides information concerning human rights to Congress, so it is particularly fitting that it should inquire into conditions in Ethiopia. That country has been a major ally of the United States and recipient of U.S. humanitarian and military aid for all of the years Ethiopia’s current regime has been in power. Since 2013, the United States has given in the range of half a billion dollars per year in foreign aid to Ethiopia, plus a much smaller amount of military aid, which means the United States is Ethiopia’s largest and most important source of foreign assistance.

In July 2015, President Obama visited Ethiopia, drawing widespread criticism from human rights groups for his warm words toward the country and his relatively milquetoast references to its abysmal human rights record. Obama said that the Prime Minister of what he referred to as the “democratically elected” Ethiopian government “would be the first to acknowledge that there is more work to be done” in the field of human rights.

Well, yes. The ruling party in Ethiopia won all 547 seats in Parliament following the elections that occurred just two months before Obama’s visit, and the “democratically elected” Prime Minister was allocated 100 percent of the vote. U.S. officials were prohibited from acting as election observers. The election featured denials of registrations for opposition candidates, while journalists were arrested and threatened. After the election, at least three opposition politicians were murdered, with no investigations conducted.

The government’s security forces employ murder and torture. In 2014, they fired into crowds of peaceful students who were protesting the government’s “land grab” for the benefit of international development interests, which would potentially displace an estimated two million Oromo. Dozens were killed. Many more were arrested and remain in prison. The killings continue. According to Human Rights Watch, relying on reports of activists, at least 75 protesters were killed by government security forces in November and December 2015, while the government only acknowledged five deaths. The actual figures are likely much greater than is known, since the government tightly restricts access to such information. There is no freedom of the press, no independent judiciary, no adherence to international human rights standards beyond lip service.

The Ethiopian government is adept at achieving the maximum oppression while drawing minimal attention to its human rights abuses. It signs onto numerous international human rights conventions, although it routinely violates them. It purports to allow local human rights organizations to exist, although its Charities and Societies Proclamation makes it largely impossible for them to operate by denying the organizations international funding.

Perhaps most impressive, the government masterfully plays the terrorism card. In 2009, it adopted the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, allowing draconian treatment of persons accused of being “terrorists,” largely an arbitrary term for those opposing actions of the Ethiopian government and wishing to bring about change. The government frequently brands protesting Oromo and others as “terrorists” to justify imprisoning or killing them.

The Tom Lantos Commission should disseminate to Congress all possible documentation of the crimes of the Ethiopian government. In turn, Congress should find ways to be sure the United States ratchets up the pressure on its strategic ally far beyond clubby acknowledgements of “more work to be done.” The spigot of international development money should not remain open without real and fundamental changes in the human rights environment in Ethiopia, beginning with an end to extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary killings; a release of political prisoners; restoration of a free press and independent judiciary; and the repeal or modification of the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Law.

By: James O’Neal, retired attorney and member of The Advocates for Human Rights’ board of directors, and Robin Phillips, the organization’s executive director. Deeply concerned about continuing human rights violations in Ethiopia, The Advocates has consistently raised concerns about the treatment of Oromos in Ethiopia at UN human rights bodies and with the African Commission on Human & Peoples’ Rights.

Pictured above: Amaanee Badhasso, International Oromo Youth Association’s president in 2014, accompanied The Advocates’ Amy Bergquist to Geneva that year to meet with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Read other blog posts about Ethiopia’s persecution of the Oromo by entering “Ethiopia” or “Oromo” in the blog’s search bar.

End the inhumane detention of refugee women and children

Child from HondurasDuring National Week of Action, open your eyes to U.S. horrors

As families across Minnesota prepare for the delights and frights of Halloween, a separate, hidden, and chilling reality exists in Texas, where more than 2,000 immigrant mothers and children are in for-profit detention facilities because they dared to flee to America to escape the horrific gang and domestic violence plaguing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The children in these facilities aren’t deciding whether they want to be Sofia the First or Captain America for Halloween. They are wondering whether they will be in jail for another week or forever.

This does not need to be their reality for much longer. In a class action lawsuit filed earlier this year, California Federal Court Judge Dolly Gee ordered family detention to end. This lawsuit was filed and succeeded because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had failed to provide basic human necessities, such as adequate food, drinking water, medical care, and appropriate facilities to immigrant children in detention.

Judge Gee’s order states that: 1) children can no longer be held in unlicensed facilities and must be given access to adequate food, drinking water, and proper medical care, and importantly, 2) since ICE has been holding immigrant children in sub-standard conditions since June 2014, all immigrant children―with their mothers―must be released from detention and the lock-up facilities must be shut down by October 23, 2015.

It is shocking that the simple proposition that innocent children do not belong in jail has resulted in such a pitched battle in federal court, but it has. Furthermore, there are signs that the government has the appetite for further litigation, as the Department of Homeland Security has stated that it intends to appeal Judge Gee’s decision.

This week is National Week of Action to #EndFamilyDetention, designed to call attention to the human rights abuses the U.S. government is inflicting upon children and their mothers. Events like the one held yesterday at the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis—grown from grass roots efforts of local attorneys and advocates―are being held in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, San Antonio, and throughout the country.

Local immigration attorneys have visited these family detention facilities to provide desperately needed legal representation to mothers and their children who are young and scared. Most of the mothers have experienced sexual violence, extortion, and death threats. They have seen their family members murdered before their eyes. A significant number of the children have the same sad history. About 90 percent of the families have been found to have a credible fear of returning to their country, the first step in qualifying for asylum in the United States.

The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit based in Minneapolis, has launched the National Asylum Help Line to connect Central American families released from detention and seeking asylum with free immigration legal services near them so they can have a fair day in court and a chance to live in safety.

Asylum seekers should be treated like human beings when they come to our country, and until recently, they often were. Before June 2014, these mothers and children most likely would have been identified and then immediately released to family in the United States. They would have received a court date to appear in immigration court to present their case for asylum. Many would have hired an immigration attorney or found a nonprofit organization to represent them in their cases. Orderly, painless, inexpensive.

By contrast, we now have a system that increases the pain all around. Mothers and children are detained indefinitely in a remote location where legal access is barely available and family visitation virtually impossible. Families are jailed in for-profit detention facilities that value profits over providing a basic level of care to children. And all of this costs taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars.

It is beyond inhumane, beyond ridiculous. It is an outrage.

As immigration attorneys, we believe and know that refugees, including the youngest and most vulnerable, have the right to seek asylum, a right that is protected under international law as well as United States laws. But how do we treat these refugees in America, the land of the free? We jail them.

To those who would argue that these women and children are breaking the law by “entering illegally,” it is important to understand that these individuals are presenting themselves to border patrol and claiming a fear of return—as they have the legal right to do―because they are afraid they will be killed if they go home. This most basic of human rights ensures that those who flee persecution have a chance to be heard before being deported to torture or death. By violating our internal and international obligations to process the cases of these asylum seekers in a humane and orderly fashion, we are the ones who are the true lawbreakers.

We hope that as more Americans understand the horrors these refugee mothers and children escaped, as more Americans learn that these vulnerable families are being held in deplorable conditions in for-profit jails run by the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, as more Americans find out how expensive it is to perpetuate this ill-conceived system of misery, they will agree with Judge Gee, and hopefully, family immigration detention will end.

By: Twin Cities’ immigration attorneys Kara Lynum and Michelle Rivero, and The Advocates for Human Rights.

Note: This blog post was published in the Star Tribune‘s editorial section on October 22, 2015.

Good Question

Child from HondurasWill the United States step up and be a moral leader for the refugees fleeing Central America?

Sonia Nazario, author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and The Advocates’ 2015 Human Rights Award recipient, asks this question in her news report on how the United States, according to Nazario, “has outsourced a refugee problem to Mexico that is similar to the refugee crisis now roiling Europe” (The New York Times, October 10, 2015). The outsourcing includes “payments” of tens of millions of dollars from the United States to Mexico to stop Central American migrants from reaching the United States/Mexico border to claim asylum.

Nazario writes:

The crackdown has forced migrants to travel in ways that are harder, take longer, are more isolated and have fewer support mechanisms. New measures have made riding on top of freight trains north, a preferred method for anyone who cannot afford a $10,000 smuggler fee, incredibly difficult. In Tierra Blanca, Veracruz and elsewhere, tall concrete walls topped with concertina wire have been constructed to thwart migrants. In Apizaco, the Lechería train station outside Mexico City and elsewhere, chest-high concrete pillars, or rocks, have been installed on both sides of the tracks so migrants cannot run alongside moving trains and board them.

Read “The Refugees at Our Door,” by Sonia Nazario.


For those Central American families who make it into the United States, The Advocates for Human Rights provides free legal services to help them seek asylum. For migrants who are not located in the Midwest, The Advocates helps them, too, with its Asylum Helpline that connects families released from U.S. immigration detention centers across the nation with free legal services. Migrants are encouraged to call the Helpline at 612-746-4674 to receive basic legal screening, information about the legal process, and referrals to agencies in areas in which they live.

No Matter Their Country, All Refugees Need Attention and Help

No Matter Their Country, All Refugees Need Attention and Help
Aylan
Aylan & Galip Kurdi

The photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach is an image we should never forget. Instead of romping on the resort beach, Aylan―in his red shirt and dark pants—lies lifeless, his face buried in the sand.

Aylan; his brother, Galip; his mother, Rehan; and his father, Abdullah, had fled the violence in Syria, crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece, and with plans to eventually make their way to Germany or Canada. But high waves flipped the 15-foot rubber raft they were in, pitching them into the sea. The little boys and their mother, and at least nine others, drowned. Only Abdullah survived.

The Kurdi family was on that boat because they were desperate. Eleven of their relatives had been slaughtered at the hands of the Islamic State [ISIS] in the Kurdish-Syrian city of Kobane in June.

There are more refugees in the world trying to escape unimaginable violence than at any other time since the world began keeping records of such desperate journeys. The international community has failed to address the crises. Countries’ policies that exacerbate and intensify the suffering of refugees compound the grief.

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are fleeing or are stranded. They are crammed into rubber boats, trucks, and cargo holds, and arriving in Europe en masse. Thousands are trekking across Hungary to Austria, evoking images of people fleeing the Nazis in World War II. Parents cling to their children for dear life. But many drown in the water or suffocate in a truck in the middle of the night, reaching out for a hand to pull them to safety.

While Hungary, Germany, Austria, and other European nations have gathered recent attention, fingers must also point to the United States’ refugee policies. The United States has not risen to its ability to take in Syrian refugees (about 1,500 since the start of the Syria’s civil war in 2011).

Also consider the United States’ shameful treatment of refugees from Central America. While these refugees occupied headlines a year ago, our attention to their plight has largely shifted elsewhere. Despite less attention and fewer media stories, they still need help. Thousands of children and families continue to arrive at the United States-Mexico border, fleeing horrendous violence in Central America. Many remain locked up in United States detention centers.

In the United States, Central American refugees are met by a ruthless immigration system that jails them, denies their due process rights, mistreats the vulnerable, and fails to abide by international human rights standards. Reports describe children being held in “The Freezer”— rooms deliberately kept cold to make children and mothers suffer. People, including children, are denied basic medical treatment. Children are administered adult doses of vaccinations (and without proper consent), causing sickness. Children as young as five appear in court alone, forced to “represent” themselves in complex, English-speaking legal proceedings. They are met by judges showing little mercy and prosecutors labeling them as national security risks.

After the horrors of WWII, the international community recognized that refugees require protection. The world understood that there are people who have no other option but to flee their homelands, and that international and United States law must protect them. This is not how the United States and other countries are acting and responding today. Instead, they behave and respond in blunt, inhumane, and unforgiving ways; they treat refugees as criminals and terrorists, and even worse.

Domestic politics confuse and conflate the crises. National leaders’ xenophobic and racist rhetoric fuels the fire. As refugees reach countries that have enormous resources, a troubling trend is exposed when people are not treated with dignity, humanity, and compassion. Each year, countries move closer to policies condemned in the past. As refugee flows expand, the United States and European countries are systematically denying refugees of their rights, violating human rights law, and the promises they had made and the treaties they signed.

You and I must hold our respective governments accountable. We must confront the consequences of the world’s collective failure to help migrants escaping violence in search hope and safety. We must pressure our governments to turn toward, not away from, refugees.

If you live in the United States, urge President Obama and U.S. Congress (House of Representatives and U.S. Senate) to increase the annual refugee admissions goal from the 2015 number of 70,000 to 200,000 for 2016.

The Advocates for Human Rights represents Syrian and Central American asylum seekers in legal proceedings and ensures that their right to asylum is protected. If you are an attorney or can interpret, please consider volunteering with The Advocates and support these refugees.

The words of Adnan Hassan, cousin of Abdullah and Rehan Kurdi, condemning the world for turning its back on Syrian refugees, can speak for all refugees, no matter the country they flee:

“Do we deserve to have our children picked up from beach shores because their parents panicked and wanted to save their children, save them from terrorism, from kidnappings, from being slaughtered?” Hassan asked in an interview with reporter Jack Moore (International Business Times, September 4.) “How long will they let our children either be killed by terrorists or drown trying to escape?”

By: Deepinder Mayell, director of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Refugee and Immigrant Program.

You & I Can Give a Child a Bright Future

You & I Can Give a Child a Bright Future
Thomas Dickstein
Thomas Dickstein with students at The Advocates’ Nepal School in 2011.

A week away from the start of my final year of high school, I am ready. My pencils are sharpened, ready to attack the loose-leaf paper in the three-ring binders waiting in my backpack. My textbooks are in the mail, I’m all signed up for the school bus, and I’m excited about receiving my school laptop. And yes, I’ve started my college applications.

All over the world, there are kids my age and younger who aren’t preparing for school. Instead, they get ready each morning (or night) for work. Sometimes it’s in a factory, sometimes it’s in a field, and sometimes it’s elsewhere—a brick yard, perhaps? Are they paid? Maybe. Are they fed? Possibly. Is it dangerous and back-breaking labor? Usually. Do they receive an education? Probably not. What about their futures? Dismal.

There are many such children in the Kathmandu Valley. But in one community, things are different. Three-hundred fifty kids wake up each morning, pack their backpacks, and head to school. Six days a week, they sit down and learn. They take classes in all the subjects one would expect in a typical school. In addition to Nepali, they also learn English, preparing them for international business in the future.They even get to join clubs and explore their passions with extracurricular activities.

The school they attend, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS), was established by The Advocates for Human Rights in 1999. Today, its students earn top scores on Nepali standardized tests, and its graduates are moving on to secondary education and universities, obtaining top jobs, and returning “home” as teachers, argonomists, and other professionals eager to improve the community’s quality of life. Some even dream about making a difference abroad.

Without The Advocates’ school, this would not be possible. You see, Nepali public schools have fees for textbooks, uniforms, school supplies, and meals. The students at SPCS are from families that struggle to put food on the table, even without paying school fees. To solve that, the Advocates eliminated cost from the equation. It doesn’t cost a cent to attend SPCS. All school supplies, textbooks, uniforms, and lunches are paid for by the school.

That’s what makes SPCS great.

Just over half the students at SPCS are female, and they’re mostly surpassing the boys in class rank and test scores. Currently, more than 50 percent of SPCS students are girls, a huge gain in the percentage in place when the school first opened. SPCS supports girl students so that they stay in school, and the school has made remarkable strides towards gender parity in a country where education of girls is often not valued equally with education of boys. Impressed? If not, consider the fact that female literacy in Nepal lags behind that of males by a staggering 33 percent, according to the International Labor Organization.

I’ve seen the school with my own eyes. It’s not a four-story metal-and-glass, state-of-the-art facility like my high school. It’s a house about the size of my family’s, nestled between two farm fields, with brick factories dotting the surrounding hillsides. Inside the school, magic happens. Students are eager and engaged, and teachers are committed. For the students, SPCS is their ticket out of a life of factory, brick yard, or field labor. The education they receive brings unlimited opportunity to their lives. In the 21st Century, the sky is no longer the limit. And it certainly isn’t the limit for graduates of the Sankhu Palubari Community School.

I encourage you to learn more about the school. It truly is a magical place. By clicking here, you can watch a video I produced about the school, read more about it, and even donate to help support the school. Did I mention that just $250 covers an entire year of costs for one student? That includes textbooks, uniforms, school supplies, and a daily meal. Yeah, click that link now. Here it is again in case you don’t want to scroll back up to it.

By: Thomas Dickstein, high school senior and a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights, who gives his time and talents to support the Sankhu-Palubari Community School. 

Oromo Protests One Year On: Looking Back; Looking Forward

Minnesota Oromos and allies rally at the Minnesota State Capitol on May 9
Minnesota Oromos and allies rally at the Minnesota State Capitol on May 9, 2014

Oromos and others in the Ethiopian diaspora are on the edge of their seats. Not only are general elections in Ethiopia scheduled for Sunday, but today the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is reviewing Ethiopia’s human rights record.

Ethiopia under review at the UN

Today, May 22nd, the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child is reviewing Ethiopia’s human rights record in light of its commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This treaty describes the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights of children. Ethiopia became a party to the Convention in 1991. Ethiopia has undergone three previous reviews with the Committee, and tomorrow’s session will consolidate the country’s fourth and fifth periodic reviews. The Committee’s review has a number of objectives. The Committee will review Ethiopia’s progress on the Committee’s previous recommendations, assess the current state of Ethiopia’s commitments, and–we hope–address some relevant issues civil society organizations like The Advocates for Human Rights and the the International Oromo Youth Association (IOYA) raised in a report to the Committee in July 2014.

Amy Bergquist and IOYA President Amane Badhasso prepare for the closed-door session with the Committee on the Rights of the Child
Amy Bergquist and IOYA President Amane Badhasso prepare for the closed-door session with the Committee on the Rights of the Child

The Advocates and IOYA met with Committee members in Geneva last September to assist them in preparing their list of issues to focus on during tomorrow’s review. The report describes numerous violations of children’s rights in Ethiopia, and it also focuses on ethnic discrimination faced by the Oromo people–the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. It emphasizes legal provisions that hinder civil society organizations from being able to carry out effective child rights work in Ethiopia. The report also outlines various government violations affecting children, including violations of civil rights and freedoms, family environment, basic health and welfare, and education. The Advocates’ report especially emphasizes the violations carried out by the Ethiopian government against minors in relation to last year’s Oromo student protests. Read on for some initial coverage of how the Committee has been using this report during today’s review.

What happens at the Committee’s review?

The Committee’s review takes place over two sessions. The first session starts with representatives of the Ethiopian Government presenting a brief overview on the current state of Ethiopia’s commitments under the Convention on the Rights of the Child–typically a brief summary of the State’s report to the Committee and a response to the Committee’s list of specific issues to which Ethiopia was previously asked to reply. Then there is a first round of questions and responses from the government delegation. During the second session, government representatives will have a chance to answer additional questions from the Committee, responding with more detail to address the Committee’s concerns.

The review takes place in Geneva, Switzerland with the first session from 10am–1pm, and the second from 3pm–6pm. The sessions are broadcast on the UN’s live treaty body webcast, and will later be archived and available online.

Quick recap

This morning, the Committee raised concerns about the government’s response to the Oromo student protests in 2014. The Ethiopian delegation’s response was as predictable as it was disappointing. The Ethiopian government said the students were not peaceful but rather were “promoting a terrorist agenda.” The Committee members expressed displeasure with the government’s classification of children as “terrorists,” prompting the Ethiopian Ambassador to the UN Office in Geneva to assert to the Committee that the students were probably “convinced by a totally unacceptable ideology.” The ambassador reserved judgment on whether the rights of students had been violated, but conceded that the delegation had heard the Committee’s concerns.

The Committee raised many other issues highlighted in our report, including sexual assault of students by teachers, FGM, discrimination against children with disabilities, and child domestic workers. For more details about today’s review, follow tweets at @alb68.

In just a few weeks, the Committee will issue its Concluding Observations and Recommendations from today’s review.

Concerns surrounding Ethiopia’s general elections

Ethiopia will also hold its parliamentary elections on Sunday, May 24th. According to Ethiopia’s Fana Broadcasting Corporate, about 36.8 million people have voting cards, and the nation has set up 45,000 polling stations across the country.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, who is running for re-election, has never run for the post of prime minister before. He took over leadership of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) after the death of the former Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. The EPRDF, the current ruling party, has won four consecutive elections in Ethiopia, winning the 2010 elections with 99.6% of the vote. Several opposition groups fear this election will have the same result.

Oromo groups, in particular, have been campaigning against the EPRDF, but according to an Al Jazeera report, this campaigning has prompted the government to place an even stronger grip on its citizens, increasing repression of their basic political liberties. Since 2010, the government has shut down the majority of independent media sources in Ethiopia, and so the Ethiopian media itself does not provide much coverage of election issues. Many sources that provide information to media and human rights groups are often targeted by the Ethiopian government, and many diaspora websites are blocked. At the same time, citizens fear the consequences of voting for an opposition party, worried that it will lead to even more repression.

Looking back on the past year

With all that’s taking place in Ethiopia over the next few days, it’s an important time to look back and reflect on what’s happened and the advocacy The Advocates has been engaging in with the diaspora over the past year:

(1) Oromo student protests

Oromo students protesting in Burayu. Image courtesy of Gadaa.com. http://gadaa.com/oduu/25775/2014/05/02/breaking-news-oromoprotests-buraayyuu-oromiyaa/
Oromo students protesting in Burayu. Image courtesy of Gadaa.com. http://gadaa.com/oduu/25775/2014/05/02/breaking-news-oromoprotests-buraayyuu-oromiyaa/

We’re now one year on from the Oromo student protests, highlighted by a blog series at The Advocates Post last year. Human rights organizations and Oromo diaspora groups, while outraged by the events in Ethiopia, have been unable to intervene directly due to the government’s strict limitations on independent human rights work within the country. Instead, the Oromo diaspora began awareness-raising movements here in Minnesota and around the world, using the #OromoProtests hashtag, and inviting others to join the movement. The Oromo diaspora organized several programs and made use of various tactics from The Advocates’ Paving Pathways appendix on “Using Popular Social Media Platforms for Effective Human Rights Advocacy.”

 (2) Ethiopia’s turn in the Universal Periodic Review

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

At the time of the protests, Ethiopia was up for review as part of the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The Advocates, along with members of the Oromo diaspora in Minnesota, prepared a stakeholder report for Ethiopia’s review. We lobbied the Geneva missions of several foreign governments, urging them to raise issues surrounding discrimination targeting Oromos and the student protests to Ethiopia’s government.

In September, the UN Human Rights Council formally adopted the outcome of the UPR of Ethiopia. As we reported at the time, there were some fireworks as civil society organizations challenged the Ethiopian government’s repressive policies.

At the adoption of the UPR outcome, the Ethiopian government made several commitments to improve its human rights record, including accepting a recommendation from the United Kingdom to “[t]ake concrete steps to ensure the 2015 national elections are more representative and participative than those in 2010, especially around freedom of assembly and encouraging debate among political parties.” Initial reports suggest that the Ethiopian government has not honored its word. But people in the diaspora can work with people on the ground in Ethiopia to document these ongoing human rights violations and to prepare reports to use in future advocacy.

(4) Meeting with the Committee on the Rights of the Child

Amane Badhasso and Sinke Wesho in front of Palais Wilson in Geneva
Amane Badhasso and Sinke Wesho in front of Palais des Nations in Geneva

In September 2014, The Advocates and IOYA traveled to Geneva to meet with the Committee on the Rights of the Child as it prepared its list of issues that would guide its review of Ethiopia’s human rights record. We also had the opportunity to meet with the staff of some of the UN special procedures to discuss other opportunities for raising human rights concerns at the United Nations.

(5) The African Human Rights Commission reviews Ethiopia’s human rights record

African Commission on Human and People's RightsAlso in September 2014, The Advocates and IOYA submitted a lengthy alternative report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, responding to the Ethiopian Government’s report. The in-person review, originally scheduled for October, was delayed due to the Ebola crisis. But the review finally happened just last month, and the African Commission’s concluding observations on Ethiopia’s human rights record should be published in the next few months.

(6) More to come

The Advocates has a few other projects in the works with diaspora communities from Ethiopia. We’ll keep you posted as those efforts progress.

Hope for the upcoming days

As we’ve said before, making progress on human rights is like a marathon, not a sprint. Ethiopia is a case in point. But neither The Advocates nor the diaspora will turn its back on the Ethiopian government’s human rights violations. We’ll continue to monitor the situation in the country and pursue strategies to pressure the government to honor its human rights commitments. Our toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities, is over 400 pages long, and there are still a lot of strategies that need to be developed and still a lot of work that remains to be done in the fight for human rights in Ethiopia.

Are you, or do you know, a member of a diaspora community? What can you do to be an advocate for human rights from afar?

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

Read more about diaspora engagement and human rights in Ethiopia:

Advocating for the Rights of Children in Ethiopia

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora

UN Special Procedures Urged to Visit Ethiopia to Investigate Crackdown on Oromo Protests

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

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

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

Ambo Protests: A Personal Account (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

Ambo Protests: Spying the Spy? (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

Ambo Protests: Going Back (reposted from Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience)

The Torture and Brutal Murder of Alsan Hassen by Ethiopian Police Will Shock Your Conscience (by Amane Badhasso at Opride)

#OromoProtests in Perspective (by Ayantu Tibeso at Twin Cities Daily Planet)