The request comes on the heels of last month’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations Human Rights Council, where the Government of Ethiopia agreed to “grant full access to Special Rapporteurs and Special Procedures Mandate holders to visit the country, notably the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education,” and to “accept the outstanding requests for visits from the special procedures” of the United Nations.
“Moreover,” the letter notes, “the situation is grave. The June 1 death of a student in custody suggests that demonstrators are being subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment while in custody.”
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 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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The Oromo Community of Minnesota hall was packed yesterday afternoon. Twice we scooted our chairs forward to make room for the crowds at the back; our knees were pressed up against the backs of the chairs in front of us. And when community members took the microphone, we could hear a pin drop. People I spoke with said the turnout and show of unity were unprecedented. The Oromo diaspora in Minnesota was gathering together to develop strategies to show support for the student protests that have been breaking out over the past two weeks in their homeland.
Who are the Oromo people?
The Oromo people are near and dear to my heart. I learned about them first-hand when I taught social studies for English Language Learners at Minneapolis South High School. Most of my ELL students were newly arrived refugees from Ethiopia. But many bristled at being called “Ethiopians.” They identified themselves as Oromos, and their homeland was Oromia—the largest of nine federal states in Ethiopia.
The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and there are Oromos in northern Kenya and parts of Somalia as well. Oromos speak Oromiffa, or Afan Oromo, a Cushitic language that shares approximately 35% of its vocabulary with Somali. Approximately 47% of Oromos are Muslim, and a similar percentage are Christian. As a civics teacher, I was fascinated to learn that the Oromo people had a sophisticated traditional system of democratic governance called the Gadaa system.
The Oromo people have long faced persecution from the Ethiopian Government and in Ethiopian society. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to leave teaching and become a human rights lawyer was to try to play a role in stemming the systematic human rights abuses that had driven my refugee students away from their homelands. The Advocates for Human Rights highlighted some of the persecution that Oromos face in a stakeholder report for the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia, which takes place tomorrow in Geneva.
Oromo students are mobilizing for change in Oromia
Last month, the Ethiopian Government announced a controversial “Integrated Development Master Plan for Addis Ababa.” The Ethiopian capital, which Oromos call Finfinnee, is surrounded by the state of Oromia. The Master Plan would expand the territory of Addis Ababa, annexing thousands of hectares of Oromia’s fertile agricultural lands, and then selling or leasing them to commercial agricultural enterprises.
Oromo students sounded the alarm about the Master Plan, recognizing that it would displace Oromo farmers and leave them without a livelihood or access to their traditional lands.
Students have been staging protests at 12 universities in Oromia. Last week, federal special forces opened fire on what seems to have been a peaceful student demonstration at Ambo University. The government has confirmed 11 fatalities, but people on the ground say the toll is closer to 50. The Ethiopian government asserts that the protests have been led by “anti-peace forces.”
One Oromo diasporan based in London told me that his sister fled Meda Welabu University in Oromia on Sunday after military forces took control from the local police and then began beating students. She saw one student killed.
Students in several universities have been under lock-down, ordered confined to their dormitory rooms and not allowed to leave campus. There are reports that officers come through the dorms at night and arrest people. One female student leader is being kept incommunicado, raising concerns that she is being ill-treated. At transportation check-points, officials check passengers’ identification and detain people with student IDs. Students who have fled are not allowed back on campus.
Getting the word out: The power of remote monitoring
Ethiopia has one of the most restrictive governments in the world. There are no independent local media organizations. No Ethiopian non-governmental organizations work openly on controversial human rights issues, and international human rights groups have been expelled from the country.
In these circumstances, it’s nearly impossible to safely conduct human rights monitoring on the ground. Oromos in the diaspora have expressed frustration that major international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been silent about the protests.
Oromo diaspora mobilizes to conduct remote monitoring
Over the past two weeks, the Oromo diaspora has mobilized to shine an international spotlight on the protests. Like many diaspora groups, Oromos outside of Ethiopia maintain contacts with friends and family “back home,” some of whom have been victims of police violence or have witnessed events. Through telephone calls, text messages, email, and social media, Oromos in the diaspora have their fingers on the pulse of the student protest movement in Oromia.
The Oromo diaspora has been buzzing on social media, quickly adopting the #OromoProtests hashtag to allow people around the world to follow and contribute to the remote monitoring process. People are posting photos of victims on twitter and uploading video of some of the demonstrations to YouTube. The Oromos I’ve talked to have also recommended following certain prominent Oromos on facebook and twitter who have the trust of Oromos on the ground and feed them breaking news. Ayantu Tibeso has compiled a list on facebook of ways that diasporans can support the Oromo protests and get involved in raising awareness. Paving Pathways includes an appendix on effective human rights advocacy using social media platforms, and the Oromo diaspora is deploying many of these tactics. I’ll be using one of my favorite social media strategies—live tweeting—during the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia tomorrow morning.
The Oromo diaspora also has more traditional media, including the newly launched Oromia Media Network, Oromo Voice Radio, as well as diaspora blogs and news websites like Gadaa.com, Ayyantuu News Online, and O-Pride. These media have helped consolidate information into useful posts, first-hand accounts, and broadcasts for people who are unable to keep up with the flurry of activity on twitter, facebook, and YouTube. And they have started a more systematic effort to verify reports of deaths and injuries, maintaining lists of victims and connecting photos with dates and locations.
The diaspora’s efforts are beginning to get traction with mainstream media, with some initial coverage from the BBC, Voice of America, Think Africa Press, and an editorial piece in Al Jazeera America. Human Rights Watch just published a statement. A Minnesota-based radio program called Reflections of New Minnesotans just released a podcast of a show it did with two members of the Oromo diaspora talking about recent developments in Oromia.
Momentum is building, and Oromos in the diaspora are pressing mainstream media and human rights organizations to raise visibility on the issues. They’re planning protests around the world on Friday, May 9. But diasporans who want to pitch stories and lobby policymakers will need to undertake careful remote monitoring to find receptive audiences. With the restrictions on civil society in Ethiopia, reporters, lawmakers, human rights organizations outside of the country will need to work with the Oromo diaspora to verify sources and confirm reports coming out of Oromia.
This post is the first in a four-part series about human rights 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. 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.