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This account of events that took place in early May in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was originally posted on the blog Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience. As the authors note in their first post in their series about the Oromo student protests, they are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers. In their first post in the series, Ambo Protests: A Personal Account, Jen and Josh describe in gripping detail what they saw and heard from April 25 to May 1: Students and others in the town of Ambo began to protest against the Ethiopian government’s “master plan” to expand the territory of Addis Ababa and annex lands belonging to the state of Oromia. Federal police hunted down Jen and Josh’s two young neighbors, who were university students, and shot and killed them in their own home, far away from the student protests. Jen and Josh decided to flee, witnessing hundreds of demonstrators packed into the prison at the Ambo police compound, many showing signs of having been beaten. With the intervention of the U.S. Embassy, the Ambo police authorities allowed Jen and Josh to leave. This post takes up their story from there.
After the protests and violence in Ambo, we fled to the capital city of Addis Ababa and stayed at a little hotel called Yilma. Immediately, we started telling everyone about what happened in Ambo. We called and texted our friends, we talked to anyone at the hotel that would listen, and we posted things on Facebook. If we tell everyone about the protesters in Ambo being imprisoned and killed, surely it will stop, we reasoned.
The next day, two strange men – one tall with dark skin, the other short with lighter skin – struck up a conversation with us in the hotel restaurant.
“We’re from Minnesota, here to visit our family in Wollega,” they said.
“Oh, we’re from St. Paul!” we replied, excited.
“Oh, we’re from St. Paul, too!” they said, pulling out a fake-looking Minnesota driver’s license.
The address said Worthington, not St. Paul.
“How long have you lived in St. Paul?’ we asked.
“Yes.” the tall man said, nervously.
“I mean…how long have you lived in St. Paul?” we said, slower.
“Just 2 weeks.”
“And you’re already back in Ethiopia. And you just drove through Ambo, past all the protests and the police, to visit your family in Wollega?” we asked, thinking about the single paved road that heads west through Ambo.
“Yes.” he replied.
“You must be very brave,” we said, thinking about how the road was closed due to the violence.
“Why?” he asked, baiting us with a stoic face.
We froze, afraid to speak further. At that moment, after 20 months in Ethiopia, we finally understood why so many people in Oromia are afraid of spies. When we first arrived in Ambo, people thought WE were C.I.A. spies, which we found amusing…spies who couldn’t even speak the language? If we had beenspies, we certainly weren’t very good at our job. But now, the tables were turned.
The two men began following us around the hotel area, sitting next to us whenever possible, walking slowly past our table, then returning slowly past our table – sometimes up to 10 times per hour. A different man followed us to a restaurant about a mile from the hotel, then sat at the closest table to ours, rudely joining a young couple’s romantic dinner.
For the next three days, we stopped telling people about the protests and the imprisonments and the killings in Ambo. We were afraid that the two men would be listening. We were afraid that someone was monitoring our communications on the government-controlled cell phone service and the government-controlled internet. Were we just paranoid? Were we really being monitored? Maybe we had just integrated too much, to the point where we had become Oromo, afraid of government spies and afraid of speaking out and being put in jail. While being ferenji (foreigners) gave us some level of protection, thoughts of the Swedish journalists thrown into an Ethiopian jail in 2011 lingered in the backs of our minds. The journalists “were only doing their jobs, and human rights group Amnesty International said the journalists had been prosecuted for doing legitimate work.” Did we seem just as suspicious to the government as those Swedish journalists? We didn’t want to find out.
Peace Corps gave all the volunteers strict instructions NOT to blog or post on Facebook about the protests or killings across Oromia. It is just too dangerous to say anything about the Ethiopian government, they pointed out.
That’s when we decided to leave Ethiopia. For us, staying in Ambo, not ruffling any feathers, was not an option. How could we go back and pretend that our neighbors, students, and and fellow residents didn’t die or didn’t end up in prison?
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.
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.
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 bodyreview 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.
Armenia draws attention to diaspora ties, recent casualties in Oromia
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.
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 talenteddistance 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.