Ambo Protests: A Personal Account

Large truck overturned during protest
Large truck overturned during the protests

This account of events in the Oromia town of Ambo–events which began exactly one month ago, on April 25–was originally posted on the blog Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience. This post is the first in a series from Jen and Josh about their experiences in the wake of the student protests.

Barricade on main road in Ambo
Barricade on main road in Ambo

Disclaimer:  We are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers, and the following is a personal story, not a news report, and does not reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, the Ethiopian Government, or the people of Ambo.

Friday, April 25th, the protests began in Ambo. We heard the sounds of a big crowd gathering at the university, walking east, yelling and chanting. The single paved road in town was barricaded, and traffic was diverted around the outskirts of town.

“What is going on?” we asked a group of high school boys.

“Oh, the students are angry. They have some problem,” they responded.

We called some friends at the university, who were able to explain further. Apparently, there are expansion plans for Addis Ababa, which would displace poor Oromo farmers and considerably shrink the size of the Oromia region. Justifiably, many Oromo people were upset. The Ethiopian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, press, and assembly, so demonstrations started across Oromia, mainly in towns with universities. Some of the protests turned violent.

Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were quiet, somewhat normal days in the town of Ambo. However, in other parts of Ethiopia, journalists and bloggers were arrested and thrown in jail.

Main road in Ambo, cars were burned in the streets
Main road in Ambo, cars & buildings being burned

Tuesday morning, the protests resumed. Friends in town called us to warn us not to go into work and not to leave our compound. Apparently there were protests at the preparatory school and the federal police were in town. We stayed home all day, listening to the sounds of the protests, denying to ourselves that the ‘pop, pop, pop’ we heard in the afternoon was gunfire. That night, the government-run news station reported that there was a misunderstanding between Oromo university students and the government. Other online reports said that the protestors were defending the Oromo’s right to their land.

Wednesday morning, the protests resumed, and our friends emphasized NOT to leave the house and NOT to answer our front gate. This time, we heard sirens. Ambo only has one ambulance – no police cars or fire trucks – and it wasn’t the normal noise. Again, we heard the ‘pop, pop, pop,’ every few minutes. We poked our heads out of the compound gate and talked to our neighbor, who confirmed that they were, in fact, gun shots. Neighbors said the federal police had already shot and killed demonstrators who were participating in the protest. As we were finishing our conversation, a group of at least 30 adults ran past, glancing nervously behind themselves as they ran.

Maalif fiigtu? (Why are you running?)” I shouted.

Poliisii as dhufu! (The police are coming here!)” a man responded, ducking behind a corner.

An hour later, we headed to the nearest store to stock up on phone cards so we could put minutes on our cell phones and data on our internet device. The storekeeper is a tough older lady who doesn’t tolerate any nonsense.

“Maal taate? (What happened?)” we asked.

She paused, looking down at her hands, her eyes welling with tears.

“Hara’aa….sirrii miti, (Today…..is not right)” she said, fighting back tears.

Ironically, as we sat at home, listening to gunshots all day long, John Kerry was visiting Ethiopia, a mere 2 hours away in Addis Ababa, to encourage democratic development.

Around 3pm, while the sounds of the protests were far on the east side of town, we heard gunshots so close to our house that we both ducked reflexively. An hour later, we talked to a young man who said, numbly, “I carried their bodies from their compound to the clinic.” Our two young neighbors – university students – had been hunted down by the federal police and killed in their home while the protest was on the opposite side of town.

Other friends told us other violent stories of what was going on in town, including an incident at a bank. Apparently, students attempted to enter the bank, and one was shot by the police. Not being armed with weapons, protesters retaliated against the shooter by hanging him.

Another friend told us about 2 students who were shot and killed by the federal police in front of a primary school…again, far away from the protest.

Wednesday night, we slept fitfully, listening to the sounds of the federal police coming around our neighborhood. They were yelling over a bullhorn in Amharic, which we didn’t understand, but was later translated for us: “Stay inside your compound tonight and tomorrow.”

Thursday, the bus station was closed and there weren’t any cars on the roads. That morning, a Peace Corps driver finally came to get us, looking terrified as he pulled up quickly to our house. We had to stop at the police station to get permission to leave town. While waiting at the station, we saw at least 50 people brought into the station at gunpoint, some from the backs of military trucks and many from a bus. Inside the police compound, there were hundreds of demonstrators overflowing the capacity of the prison, many of them visibly beaten and injured. After the U.S. Embassy requested our release, we headed out of town. The entire east side of town, starting from the bus station, was damaged. A bank, hotel, café, and many cars were damaged or burned. Our driver swerved to avoid the charred remains of vehicles sitting in the middle of the street.

We couldn’t help but shed tears at the sight of our beloved, damaged town.

One of several vehicles burned during the protests
One of several vehicles burned during the protests
A restaurant/gym damaged during protest
Our favorite restaurant/gym, damaged

To read more from the authors, visit their blog, Jen & Josh in Ethiopia: A Chronicle of Our Peace Corps Experience.

More posts about the crisis in Ethiopia:

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: 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)

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

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review
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Minnesota Oromos and allies rally at the Minnesota State Capitol on May 9

When students in Ethiopia started protesting last month against the Ethiopian Government’s proposal to annex territory from the state of Oromia to facilitate the expansion of the capital city Addis Ababa, diasporans mobilized to show their solidarity. As federal “Agazi” security forces cracked down, opening fire on peaceful protesters, placing students on lock-down in their dormitories, and conducting mass arrests, Oromos around the world staged rallies and hunger strikes to raise international awareness and to call on the governments of the countries where they live to withhold aid and put pressure on the Ethiopian Government to respect human rights.

In the first three posts in this series, I discussed the Oromo diaspora’s mobilization to shed light on the human rights violations on the ground, the sharp criticism the government of Ethiopia faced during the Universal Periodic Review on May 6, and the steps the Oromo diaspora in Minnesota is taking to show solidarity and press for accountability in Ethiopia. This final post tells some of the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and also covers the Ethiopian government’s formal response to the UN review and offers some suggestions for next steps.

Not “voiceless,” but deliberately silenced by Ethiopian government
“We need to be a voice for the voiceless” has been a common refrain from the diaspora. But in my view, the students and others who are protesting in Ethiopia are far from voiceless. They have been bravely marching, placing their lives and academic careers on the line, to express their opposition to the government’s “Integrated Development Master Plan for Addis Ababa.” In the words of 2004 Sydney Peace Prize winner Arundhati Roy, “there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

The government controls the media and telecommunications in Ethiopia, effectively placing a stranglehold on open debate and criticism of the government. Historically, efforts by western media, including CNN, to cover events on the ground in Ethiopia have been stymied. The government’s repression and intimidation also create obstacles for independent journalists trying to cover the story from outside the country. I spoke with one U.S.-based reporter who covers the Horn of Africa, and he explained that when he tried to confirm casualty reports, hospital personnel in Ethiopia refused to speak to him, fearing for their jobs.

https://www.oromiamedia.org/The Oromia Media Network (OMN), a Minnesota-based satellite news network that has been covering the student protests, offering commentary, and dedicating attention to the diaspora response, reported that on May 2, the Ethiopian government blocked access to its website, and on May 13,  began jamming OMN’s satellite transmission. Oromos in Ethiopia have turned to the OMN Facebook page, urging, “Please send us a new frequency.”

The Ethiopian government even attempts to silence social media. One Oromo messaged me on Facebook from an internet cafe in Addis Ababa, but he said that he didn’t feel safe going into too much detail, fearing that the government or people in the cafe were monitoring his communications.

He’s not being paranoid, and the OMN experience is nothing new. The government has used its monopoly control over telecommunications to conduct surveillance of regime opponents, as well as to block websites of opposition groups, media sites, and bloggers. Speaking of bloggers critical of the Ethiopian government, since The Advocates for Human Rights launched this blog series on May 5, I’ve been pleased to see a huge spike in visitors from Ethiopia. We’ve had over 700 views from Ethiopia, and so far there’s no sign that the government is blocking access to The Advocates Post. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.

On May 5, I had a conversation with an Oromo in London who had just spoken with his sister, who the day before had fled to Addis Ababa from Madawalabu University in Bale Robe. She reported that the military had started beating students who were demonstrating at the university. She told her brother that students were unable to get the word out because cell phone and internet service had been turned off. She saw forces kill one student, but feared that there were more casualties. She was able to share the news with her brother only because she had fled 430 kilometers (267 miles) to the capital, where the phones hadn’t been shut off.

New reports that Ethiopian government is inciting inter-ethnic violence
I’ve read reports on social media that the Ethiopian government is provoking inter-ethnic violence by spreading false reports of attacks and planned attacks. With no independent media, it’s safe to conclude that

Flags of the Oromo and Ogaden people were on display at the May 9 rally in St. Paul, Minnesota
Flags of the Oromo and Ogaden people were on display at the May 9 rally in St. Paul, Minnesota

any reports on official media outlets in Ethiopia reflect the government’s efforts to shape perceptions of reality. When a vacuum exists where independent media should be, rumors—some likely fed by the government—can create fear and misunderstanding.

Outside Ethiopia, diasporans are actively combating efforts to divide opposition voices along ethnic lines. At the three-day rally at the Minnesota State Capitol in the United States, flags of the Ogaden ethnic group were proudly displayed beside Oromo flags. One of the chants was “Oromo, Ogaden, united, we’ll never be defeated!” And Oromos in the diaspora are urging their compatriots to target their protests at the Ethiopian Government, rather than at members of particular ethnic groups.

Diaspora ties are a lifeline for getting the word out

jimma
Federal “Agazi” security forces at Jimma University, where some of the first student protests took place. Photo credit: @mt21bmn, twitter.

The Ethiopian government is incapable of eradicating the close ties between the Oromo diaspora and Oromos in Ethiopia, and those ties have become a lifeline to get the word out. Here’s just some of what I’ve heard:

  • One Oromo family living in Minnesota has been sponsoring a student who attends Ambo University, helping his family cover his tuition and fees. On May 1, the Minnesota family received a tragic call. The student had been peacefully protesting with his friends and dormitory roommates when police opened fire, gunning him down. The friends called his family in Oromia to report that he had been killed, and the family called the sponsors in Minnesota to share the sad news. The report from the student’s friends was critical, because the government hadn’t released the young man’s body to his family.
  • Another Oromo had spoken with family members who directly witnessed events in Ambo. They reported seeing at least 30 student protesters killed. They also told of many local, Oromo police officers refusing to participate in the violence, and most of those officers were taken to jail en masse. Another Oromo reported a similar situation for Oromo police officers in the town of Nekemte.
  • I spoke in person with an Oromo who has a personal connection to Ambo University. He requested that I not share the nature of that connection, for fear that it would place people in danger. A few days after the shootings, he heard from friends in Ambo that people had just discovered three bodies of protesters who had been discarded in the woods adjoining the university.
  • I spoke with another Oromo living in the United Kingdom who said he had been following the situation in Oromia closely through social media. He spoke with his family in Bale Robe on May 5, who reported that on May 2, they saw security forces haul away two trucks full of student demonstrators. People in Bale Robe don’t know where the students were taken. And his family also reported that in a village nearby Bale Robe, villagers had risen up because of the crackdown on students, prompting security forces to take over the village on the night of May 1 and beat the villagers. One pupil who fled to Bale Robe had reported what had happened. Another Oromo living in the United States reported that 40 people who were injured at Madawalabu University and in Bale Robe were hospitalized, some in critical condition. He also reported that federal security forces were searching homes in neighboring villages to try to hunt down students who had participated in the protests.
  • A Minnesotan Oromo told me that her cousin, an agriculture student at Alemaya University, reported that he was not allowed to leave the dorm to go back to his family. Oromos in Minnesota heard similar reports from students at Haramaya University, who reported that they were being detained in their dormitory rooms and were not allowed to leave. One Oromo reported that on May 7 police forcibly dispersed a protest by high school students in Haramaya and arrested 15 students.
  • One Oromo in the diaspora has forwarded me a steady stream of graphic photos of victims, along with photos from protests, notices at universities in Oromia cancelling classes, and a document from the mayor of Addis Ababa cancelling a request for a protest. One notice from the administration at Asella medical school called for an emergency meeting to try to prevent a protest planned by students and staff. He reported that the students and staff rejected the call and decided to go ahead with the protest as planned. In Nagelle, he reports, 47 students were arrested after they asked school administrators for permission to stage protests.
  • A college teacher who had previously been jailed for over two years after being swept up in mass arrests reported via email that people in western Oromia had fled to the bush to save their lives. He said that there was a great deal of tension in the capital city as students at Addis Ababa University were gearing up for another round of protests.
  • One Oromo in the diaspora reported that 26 students from Addis Ababa University had been confirmed as arrested, and that hundreds of students were leaving campus because of harassment from security forces.
  • Another person on the ground sent some encouraging words: “I am hearing [about] the protest going on in Minnesota by [the] Oromo diaspora, it is very energizing. Please help and stand by us. Please don’t be silent in this tough time.”
  • One Oromo in the diaspora reported that he had learned from credible sources on the ground that “the crackdown against Oromo students has intensified.” On May 14, three protesters from Wollega University were killed and over 200 wounded by security forces in Nekemte Najjo, in western Oromia. On May 15, 152 protesters were wounded in the western Oromia town of Najjo, and large numbers were injured in the nearby town of Gorii. On May 16, nine students in Adama were expelled for life, and eight more were barred from school for five years. Nine students were detained and their whereabouts was unknown.
  • Another Oromo diasporan reported hearing from friends who had fled their universities but were afraid to go home, fearing that the Agazi forces would arrest and torture them. “We are in the forest with no food, no shelter, only suffering. We can’t imagine going home because if we did, we’d die.”

These communications between people on the ground and the diaspora could come at great risk. “Intercepted emails and phone calls have been submitted as evidence in trials under the country’s flawed anti-terrorism law.” This fear is palpable to diasporans who are receiving the news. One of the Oromo diasporans who contacted me cautioned that if I were to use his real name in this blog post, his family back in Ethiopia would “be in big danger within 24 hours.”

Remote monitoring can help manage the overwhelming flow of information
Despite these risks, there has been a steady flow of photos and videos on social media showing protest footage, as well as injured protesters, broken-down dormitory room doors, and even graphic images of people who have been killed. Some individuals in the diaspora and diaspora websites have been compiling this information, and the new #OromoProtests website has emerged as both an information portal and a mobilizing tool for diasporans and allies.

But as the U.S.-based reporter I spoke with observed, there is a lot of information in circulation, but it’s hard to “triangulate” it to verify the journalistic “Five Ws.” Late last week, Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) confirmed diaspora reports that federal security forces killed at least three Wollega University student-protesters and have detained hundreds of students.

The Advocates has received several requests for assistance from the Oromo diaspora about how to keep track of information in a systematic way:

We in the diaspora are so overwhelmed with information about arrests, wounding and deaths coming out of Ethiopia. But we do not seem to have institutions that are tracking, documenting, and sharing this information in an appropriate manner. [Do you have] any suggestions for models or examples we can use to set something up just temporarily until we find some more reliable way of managing information?

Remote monitoring is challenging, but critical when human rights violations occur in places like Ethiopia. Our remote monitoring chapter in Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities, offers some suggestions and resources. And our chapter on additional monitoring tools identifies other tools, like the Ushahidi open-source software, which was first deployed to map and document user-generated reports of violence after the 2007 elections in Kenya.

Grilling at the UN: The Ethiopian Government responds

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

My second blog post in this series highlighted the May 6 Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations. Two days later, the UN issued its report of the UPR working group on Ethiopia, which serves as the Government of Ethiopia’s formal response to the review. In the report, the government identifies recommendations it accepts and others it rejects, as well as a few it wants until September 2014 to think about. Here’s how the Ethiopian Government responded to the recommendations I highlighted in that second post:

Accepted recommendations

  • Violence and mistreatment by security forces
    • Finland: Continue efforts to ensure that clear, independent and effective complaints mechanisms are in place for individuals’ complain[t]s concerning mistreatment by security and law enforcement authorities.
    • Rwanda: Intensify efforts to build the capacity of law enforcement authorities on the basic rights of the citizens.
  • Forcible resettlement of farmers and pastoralists
    • Austria: Equip the national human rights institutions with the necessary resources and capacities to effectively monitor the human rights situation and to independently investigate, provide appeals and redress for alleged human rights violations in relation to the resettlement of communities through the Commune Development Programme.
    • Bolivia: Promote and protect the rights of the peasants and other persons working in rural areas.
    • Rwanda: Strengthen measures taken at national level to ensure food security in the country.
    • Malaysia: Step up efforts to improve health services for all its citizens, especially in the rural areas.
    • Thailand: Consider adopting universal health-care coverage to ensure health-care provision for all, with particular attention given to vulnerable groups and those living in rural areas.
    • Morocco: Intensify its efforts to make segments of the society benefit from equitable economic growth.
  • Ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution
    • Armenia: Further promote tolerance and dialogue between different ethnic and religious groups.
    • The Holy See: Keep encouraging inter-religious and inter-ethnic dialogue so that Ethiopia’s pluralism of traditions and cultures remains an enriching and valued dimension of the country and continue improving the outreach to all ethnic communities to actively participate in the political process so as to strengthen Ethiopia’s democracy and prevent potential conflicts.
    • Bolivia: Continue the actions aimed at the eradication of acts of racism and other forms of discrimination and intolerance.
    • Nicaragua: Increase efforts and adopt all the necessary measures for the fight against discrimination in all its forms, particularly against minorities, among them the most vulnerable children and women.
    • Burundi: Improve the existing activities and mechanisms to strengthen inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.
    • Canada: Protect and promote the right of the Ethiopians to practice their religious faith or beliefs, including by enhancing the dialogue between different faith communities to address inter-religious tensions.
    • Sudan: Further intensify efforts to ensure equal access to quality education, and expand primary education to children in their mother tongue.
    • The Maldives: Continue efforts to strengthen quality of education and access to education and make basic education free for all, especially in rural areas.
  • Freedom of expression and association for opposition political parties and human rights defenders

    • Japan: Take steps to guarantee the political rights of its people, the freedom of expression, association and assembly, in particular.
    • Finland: Take further measures to ensure the safety and freedom of action of human rights defenders.
    • Nigeria: Continue to grant all political parties unfettered access to the print and electronic media for fair elections.
    • Switzerland: Ensure that the right to participation of all persons promoting and protecting human rights is guaranteed.
  • Restrictions on civil society, media; anti-terrorism measures
    • Norway: Establish mechanisms for meaningful participation of civil society at the federal and regional level in the process of implementing and monitoring the National Human Rights Action Plan and take concrete measures to ensure that efforts to counter terrorism are carried out in full compliance with the Constitution and international human rights obligations, including respect for fair trial guarantees and freedom of expression.
    • Ireland: Review its legislation to ensure that any limitations on the right to freedom of expression, both online and offline, are in full compliance with Article 19 of the ICCPR in particular by providing for a defence of truth to all defamation cases.
    • South Korea: Take measures to ensure the increased freedom of expression of journalists and media workers.
  • Due process
    • Switzerland: Respect the right to a fair trial, notably by ensuring that legal procedures are respected.
  • Disappearances, torture in detention facilities
    • Bhutan: Further improve the conditions of prisons to make them more conducive to the rehabilitation of inmates as per the comment of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.
    • Russia: Improve the prison system and the situation of prisoners based on the 2013 report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission on the Situation of Human Rights in the country’s prisons.
    • Kyrgyzstan: Introduce a definition of torture in its Criminal Code that cover all of the elements contained in article 1 of the Convention against Torture.
  • Expand engagement with UN special procedures
    • Spain: Accept the outstanding requests for visits from the special procedures and respond to the communications sent by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which are awaiting replies.
    • Hungary: Strengthen its cooperation with UN Human Rights mechanisms, including by permitting visits from mandate holders.
    • The Netherlands: Grant full access to Special Rapporteurs and Special Procedures Mandate holders to visit the country, notably the Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Education, the Right to Food and Violence against Women.

Recommendations the government asserts are “already implemented”

  • Namibia: Extend free primary education throughout the country.
  • Canada: Fully protect members of opposition groups, political activists and journalists who are exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly from arbitrary detention.
  • France: Take the necessary measures in order for the law on media and access to information to comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and provide the proper framework for appeals within the 2009 anti-terrorist law in order to guarantee the respect for fundamental rights.
  • Denmark: Remove any structural and institutional impediments that hinder the implementation of the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation.
  • Slovakia: Repeal provisions of the legislation that can be used to criminalise the right to freedom of expression.
  • Paraguay: Allow independent observers access to places of detention.

Rejected recommendations

  • Violence by security forces, torture and disappearances
    • Costa Rica: Take urgent measures to investigate the numerous reports of torture and extrajudicial executions committed by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces.
    • Tunisia: Authorize the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] to visit all places where persons may be deprived of their liberty.
    • Hungary: Ratify OP-CAT and grant ICRC and other independent observers immediate, full and genuine access to all detention facilities.
    • France: Ratify the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court as well as the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
    • Denmark: Sign and ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.
    • Estonia: Ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
    • Paraguay: Ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.
    • Austria: Improve conditions in detention facilities by training of personnel to investigate and prosecute all alleged cases of torture and to ratify the OP-CAT.
  • Ethnic and other discrimination
    • Namibia: Further enhance the institutional and financial capacities of the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission to effectively carry out its mandate vis-a-vis the affected communities, especially its working relations with the Oromo, Ogaden, Gambella and the Somali Communities.
    • Argentina: Extend measures to combat discrimination to the entire vulnerable population, which is victim of stereotypes and discrimination, particularly discrimination based on sexual orientation, and thus amend the criminalization established in the Criminal Code relating to that sector of the population.
  • Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and Charities and Societies Proclamation
    • United States: Repeal the Charities and Societies Proclamation in order to promote the development of an independent civil society able to operate freely and conduct a full review of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, amending the law as necessary to ensure that it strengthens the rule of law and is applied apolitically and in full compliance with Ethiopia’s international human rights obligations.
    • Sweden: Remove vague provisions in the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation that can be used to criminalise the exercise of the right to freedom of expression and association and ensure that criminal prosecutions do not limit the freedom of expression of civil society, opposition politicians and independent media.
    • Norway: Amend the Charities and Societies Proclamation to allow civil society to work on human rights issues, including women’s rights, without restrictions related to the origin of funding.
    • Ireland: Allow civil society organisations to complement Government programmes in preventing violence and harmful practices against women and girls and also amend the Charities and Societies Proclamation to ensure that restrictions on freedom of association are removed, including restrictions on potential sources of funding for civil society.
    • Australia: Amend its Charities and Societies Proclamation to facilitate the effective operation and financing of non-government organizations and narrow the definition of terrorist activity within international practice to exclude journalism.
    • France: Contribute to reinforce the role of civil society and suppress the administrative constraints and financial restrictions imposed by the 2009 law.
    • The Netherlands: Amend and clearly redefine provisions in the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation in order to lift restrictions on the rights of freedom of association and freedom of expression.
    • Belgium: Revise the Charities and Societies Proclamation and Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to create a framework conducive to the work of NGOs and other civil society organizations, and ensure the protection of journalists and political opponents from all forms of repression.
    • The Czech Republic: Amend the Charities and Societies Proclamation so that all NGOs can operate freely without restrictions stemming from the structure of their funding.
    • Austria: Ensure that the provisions of the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation are in compliance with international human rights standards, including the freedom of expression and assembly; and revise the 2009 Anti-Terrorism proclamation and the 2008 Mass Media Proclamation bring them in line with international human rights standards.
    • Slovenia: Repeal the provisions of the media and anti-terrorism legislation that infringe on the protection accorded to freedom of expression by provisions in Article 29 of its Constitution and on Ethiopia’s human rights obligations.
  • Freedom of expression and association, media freedom
    • Switzerland: Put an end to the harassment of journalists and release those detained without any valid grounds.
    • Hungary: Create a conducive environment for independent civil society to conduct civic and voter education, monitor elections and organise election debates, by lifting all undue restrictions on activities and funding of NGOs.
    • Slovakia: Take necessary measures to ensure respect for the right to freedom of association, including by repealing legislative and administrative restrictions on the activities of NGOs.
    • The Czech Republic: Immediately release all journalists detained for their professional activities, both those arrested recently and those jailed earlier, such as Mr. Nega and Ms. Alemu; amend the Mass Media Proclamation so that the space for free media is widened, and refrain from invoking the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle independent journalists; and ensure inclusive campaigning before the 2015 elections and grant all political parties equal access to the media.
  • Engagement with UN special procedures
    • United States: Permit the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association to travel to Ethiopia to advise the Government.
    • Slovenia: Respond favourably to all outstanding requests for a visit by the special procedures and consider issuing a standing invitation to the special procedures, as recommended previously.
    • Montenegro: Strengthen its cooperation with United Nations human rights mechanisms, including by extending a standing invitation to all thematic special procedures.
    • Uruguay: Extend an Open Invitation to all the mechanisms and special procedures of the Human Rights Council.

“Pending” recommendations

  • Australia: Implement fully its 1995 Constitution, including the freedoms of association, expression and assembly for independent political parties, ethnic and religious groups and non-government organizations.
  • Mexico: Monitor the implementation of the anti-terrorism law in order to identify any act of repression which affects freedom of association and expression and possible cases of arbitrary detention. In addition, develop activities necessary to eliminate any excesses by the authorities in its application and eliminate all obstacles to the development of non-governmental organizations, in particular, the financial procedures for those financed with resources from abroad, and promote the participation of civil society in the activities of the State.
  • United Kingdom: Take 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 and invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to visit Ethiopia.
  • Botswana: Ensure the full independence and impartiality of the judiciary, in conformity with international standards.
  • Spain: Issue a permanent open invitation to the special procedures and adopt measures which guarantee the non-occurrence of cases of torture and ill-treatment in places of detention, and among them, establish an independent national preventive mechanism against torture.

You can make a difference
Reports from the diaspora suggest that the situation on the ground in Oromia is going from bad to worse. Students continue their courageous protests, while the Ethiopian Government expands mass arrests and expulsions and reportedly is attempting to incite inter-ethnic conflict. But there are several things the Oromo diaspora and people who want to show solidarity can do to help:

  1. Educate yourself about the Oromo Protests and the history of human rights violations in Ethiopia. The #OromoProtests website has some great infographics. Read the International Oromo Youth Association’s appeal letter. Watch IOYA President Amane Bedaso’s interview on Sahara TV. One Oromo on the ground sent an email pleading for help: “We are between life and death. Please don’t forget us. We are people of this world. Things are going out of control.” You can spread the word, and help get the hashtag #OromoProtests trending on Twitter.
  2. aidIf you live in the United States or another country that provides aid to the Government of Ethiopia, write to your elected representatives to inform them about what’s going on, call on your government to condemn the Ethiopian Government’s response to the student protests, and urge them to withhold funds. The #OromoProtests website has some sample letters, and the Advocacy chapter of Paving Pathways has more guidance for effective outreach. If Ethiopia rejected your government’s UPR recommendations, be sure to highlight that fact in your advocacy.
  3. Support efforts to conduct systematic remote monitoring of the situation on the ground in Ethiopia. For starters, offer to assist the International Oromo Youth Association, which has been tracking events closely.
  4. Support diaspora media organizations like the Oromia Media Network that are working to get the word out. As OMN notes, the Ethiopian Government “has shut down all independent newspapers in [the] Oromo language and those tending to address unique concerns of the Oromo people. As a result, despite being the official language of the Oromia region, not a single independent newspaper is published in Afaan Oromo. Neither are there independently run radio or television stations broadcasting in one of Africa’s most widely spoken languages with over 40 million native speakers.” So getting OMN back on the air in Ethiopia is critical.
  5. Take advantage of some of the UPR recommendations the Ethiopian Government accepted:
  6. Lobby your government to press Ethiopia to accept any “pending” UPR recommendations, particularly the United Kingdom’s recommendation to invite the Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit Ethiopia.
  7. Oromos in the diaspora who are in close contact with family members of students who have been killed, injured, arrested, or disappeared can work with them to submit urgent action letters to UN and African Commission special procedures, as a coalition recently did on behalf of bloggers who have been jailed in Ethiopia. Part D of Chapter 11 in Paving Pathways provides more information on using urgent action letters to raise awareness at the United Nations and regional human rights mechanisms when emergency situations arise.

What will you do to make a difference? Please share your suggestions and requests in the comments!

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

This post is the fourth in a four-part series about human rights in Ethiopia. Part 1 describes the important role the Oromo diaspora is playing in remotely monitoring recent human rights developments in Ethiopia. Part 2 highlights the May 6 Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations. Part 3 explores the Oromo diaspora’s strategies for showing solidarity with the Oromo students while pushing for human rights and holding perpetrators accountable for the violence against peaceful demonstrators.

More posts in this series:

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

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