Oromo Protests One Year On: Looking Back; Looking Forward

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

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

Ethiopia under review at the UN

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

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

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

What happens at the Committee’s review?

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

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

Quick recap

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

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

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

Concerns surrounding Ethiopia’s general elections

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

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

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

Looking back on the past year

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

(1) Oromo student protests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(6) More to come

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

Hope for the upcoming days

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

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

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

Read more about diaspora engagement and human rights in Ethiopia:

Advocating for the Rights of Children in Ethiopia

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora

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

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advocating for the Rights of Children in Ethiopia

Amane and Sinke 2

During the week of September 22, the International Oromo Youth Association’s (IOYA) president, vice president, and I were in Geneva—invited there to meet with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the treaty body that oversees implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. IOYA worked diligently to raise funds from the Oromo diaspora to support our trip. The week was a good illustration of many of the ways diaspora groups can use the United Nations to advocate for human rights in their countries of origin and ancestry–the focus of Chapter 9 of our diaspora toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice and Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities.

The treaty-body review process is cyclical, like the Universal Periodic Review. It typically starts with the government’s report on its compliance with the treaty. You can read the Ethiopian Government’s report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child here. Next, civil society groups like The Advocates for Human Rights and IOYA can submit their own alternative reports (also called “parallel” or “shadow” reports), responding to the government’s report and identifying issues that need further attention. Read our report to the Committee here.

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

The next step in the process is for the Committee to publish a “list of issues” to guide the rest of the review. The Committee on the Rights of the Child invites some civil society organizations to meet with Committee members in person for a confidential briefing before it finalizes the list of issues. We met with the Committee on September 26 and had a productive dialogue about their issues of concern and ours. But because the closed-door session is confidential, I won’t go into details of what we discussed.

Two weeks later, the Committee published its list of issues for its upcoming review of Ethiopia. The Committee included many—but not all—of the issues we raised in our report. Based on the list of issues, we know the Committee is concerned about issues such as “discrimination and stigma faced by girls, children with disabilities, and children of ethnic minorities”; sexual abuse of children, including children with disabilities; FGM; support for children with disabilities, including children who live and/or work in the streets; “relocation of a significant number of indigenous families, belonging, inter alia, to the Anuak, Nuer or Oromo, under the ‘villagization’ programme, . . . to areas unsuitable for agricultural use, where they lack access to education and basic necessities”; child domestic workers; abuse and violence against children; and sexual violence perpetrated by teachers against students.

The next step in the process is for the Ethiopian Government to submit a written response to the list of issues. The Committee requested a response by March 15, 2015, but oftentimes the responses come much later.

Now that we know the issues the Committee is concerned about, we have the opportunity to submit a new report if we have any additional information that might be relevant. And after the Ethiopian Government submits its written response, we can submit our own alternative report to highlight any inaccuracies or omissions in the government’s report.

Next, the Ethiopian Government will send a delegation to Geneva for an “examination” by the Committee. The examination will take place during the Committee’s session running from May 18 to June 5, 2015. The examination isn’t limited to the topics covered in the list of issues, so it’s possible the Committee will voice its concern then about the government’s violent crackdown on student protests. Then, after the session, the Committee will publish its Concluding Observations and Recommendations for the Ethiopian Government. You can read the Concluding Observations from Ethiopia’s last review, in 2006, at this link.

To learn more about the UN treaty body review process, read pages 224-233 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA Meets with UN Special Procedures Staff

IOYA President Amane Badhasso meeting with the staff of one of the special procedures mandate-holders
IOYA President Amane Badhasso meets with the staff of one of the special procedures mandate-holders

We didn’t travel all that way just for one meeting. Rather, we decided to make the most of our time by following up on a letter we sent to some of the UN Special Procedures in June, encouraging them to visit Ethiopia to investigate the government crackdown on the Oromo protests. We met with staff of several special procedures, discussing the possibility of a country visit and also talking about what role the Oromo diaspora could play in assisting people who might want to submit individual communications to the special procedures. To learn more about how to engage with the UN Special Procedures, read pages 211-222 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA and The Advocates Host a Side Event
While the Human Rights Council is in session, NGOs with consultative status, like The Advocates for Human Rights, can apply for space at the United Nations to host a “side event.” To learn more about applying for consultative status with the United Nations, read pages 310-312 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA representatives present at the side event
IOYA Vice President, Sinke Wesho (right) presents at the side event

The Advocates and IOYA hosted a side event called “Diaspora Engagement on Human Rights: Ethiopia as a Case Study.” I introduced the audience to our Paving Pathways toolkit, and then I turned the floor over to my IOYA colleagues. IOYA’s President, Amane Badhasso, spoke about the ways in which the Oromo diaspora used social media to engage in advocacy surrounding the Oromo protests. To learn more about how you can conduct an effective human rights advocacy campaign, including a campaign using social media, read Chapter 7 , as well as Appendix C and D, of Paving Pathways.

IOYA’s Vice President, Sinke Wesho, talked about the issue of human trafficking from Ethiopia and the efforts of the diaspora to assist victims and document the problem. To learn how you can get involved in monitoring and documenting human rights violations, read Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 of Paving Pathways.

IOYA had invited members of the Oromo diaspora in the Geneva area to attend, but a mix-up by security at the entrance gate meant that most of them were not allowed into the building. Nonetheless, the event was well-attended. Even Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Minister Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva attended, perhaps to monitor whether people were criticizing Ethiopia. He listened politely and when we opened the session up for questions and comments, he praised the IOYA representatives for their advocacy. But then he went on to suggest that the criticisms of the Ethiopian government were unfounded. After the event, people came up to congratulate the IOYA representatives and take photos. When the cameras began to flash, Mr. Hidug angrily lashed out at the people taking photos, insisting that he did not authorize anyone to take his photo: “This is Switzerland, so if someone says you cannot take their photograph, you must not do so!” From my perspective, though, nobody was interested in taking his photograph.

The Advocates Delivers Statements During Human Rights Council Debates, Prompts Ethiopia to Exercise Right of Reply
NGOs with consultative status can also take the floor and make statements during certain periods of the Human Rights Council’s debates. While we were in Geneva, I delivered two statements.

Amy Bergquist delivers a statement on access to justice for Africans in the diaspora at the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council
Amy Bergquist delivers a statement on access to justice for Africans in the diaspora at the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council

The first was during a general debate about racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related forms of intolerance following an interactive dialogue on access to justice with the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. I spoke about the importance of access to justice for Africans living in the diaspora, particularly for human rights violations that occurred in their country of origin. You can read my statement here, and watch me deliver it here. (Scroll down to Chapter 21 of the video.)

The second statement was during a general debate on technical assistance and capacity-building. I spoke about the importance of providing technical assistance and capacity-building to diaspora communities that want to improve human rights and accountability in their countries of origin and ancestry. I pointed to Ethiopia as a particularly relevant example, noting that the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation had stifled civil society work on human rights within Ethiopia. In such circumstances, I observed, it is particularly important to build the capacity of diaspora organizations to promote human rights in their country of origin. You can watch me deliver the second statement here. (Scroll down to Chapter 52 of the video.)

Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Miniester Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva, exercising Ethiopia's right of reply in response to The Advocates' statement to the Human Rights Council
Ephrem Bouzayhue Hidug, Minister Counsellor of the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia to the UN Office at Geneva, exercising Ethiopia’s right of reply in response to The Advocates’ statement to the Human Rights Council

During these debates, countries may exercise a “right of reply” to respond to a statement made by another country or by an NGO. Mr. Ephrem Hidug, who had attended our side event earlier that day, felt compelled to respond to our statement. This time, though, he couldn’t stop the cameras from rolling.

He denied that the Charities and Societies Proclamation has had a negative effect on civil society organizations in Ethiopia, asserting that Ethiopia has thousands of organizations active on “advocacy, development, humanitarian, and other things.” Notably, he did not state that they work on human rights issues. You can listen to his full statement here at Chapter 69.

All Work and No Play . . . .

Switzerland's Oromos enjoying their 2014 Irreechaa celebration in Lausanne
Switzerland’s Oromos enjoying their 2014 Irreechaa celebration in Lausanne

As it turned out, at the end of our busy week in Geneva, Switzerland’s Oromo community had organized a celebration of Irreechaa, a harvest festival sometimes referred to as the “Oromo Thanksgiving.” The IOYA representatives and I traveled to Lausanne, a lovely town on the shore of Lake Geneva, and enjoyed a wonderful day soaking in Oromo culture, music, and food. Oromos had come from all over Switzerland–some had driven from more than 2 hours away–to join in the celebration. We were overwhelmed by their hospitality and their eagerness to hear what we had accomplished during our brief visit.

Advice for Diaspora Advocates Around the World: It’s a Long-Term Commitment

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

After our busy week in Geneva, I asked IOYA President Amane Badhasso to reflect on what she’d done and lessons learned. I encouraged her to share advice that she would give to other diaspora organizations–both Oromo groups and other diaspora communities–that want to promote human rights in their country of origin or ancestry. Here are her recommendations:

The promotion of human rights is a long-term commitment, and those who want to implement/promote human rights in their country of origin should understand the issues within their country of origin and tell stories from the perspective of those on the ground. In addition, it is important for those in the diaspora to utilize all tools available to lobby their country of residence and assure that the international community is aware of various abuses in the country of origin. It is also crucial to educate the public and use resources available to collaborate with groups that deal with human rights advocacy so that a practical outcome could come out of advocacy.

During our week in Geneva, we learned about many ways the Oromo diaspora can engage in advocacy at the United Nations. IOYA can’t take on all of these strategies on its own; there are many opportunities for other diaspora groups to get involved. But our advocacy with the Committee on the Rights of the Child was an important step in raising visibility about human rights violations against the Oromo people in Ethiopia.

Are you a member of a diaspora community? What ways can you engage with the United Nations to promote human rights in your country of origin or ancestry?

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

More posts about human rights in Ethiopia:

Building Momentum in Geneva with the Oromo Diaspora

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

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

candleThis 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 been spies, 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?

To read more from the authors, or to share your appreciation, please 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: A Personal Account (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)

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

Diaspora Speaks for Deliberately Silenced Oromos; Ethiopian Government Responds to UN Review
7
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

Raising My Voice to #BringBackOurGirls

 

Jennifer Prestholdt's son at the Mother's Day march to #BringBackOurGirls
Jennifer Prestholdt’s son at the Mother’s Day march to #BringBackOurGirls

On Mother’s Day, I spoke at a local march and rally to show support for the nearly 300 school girls abducted a month ago in Nigeria. Here’s what I said:

Bring Back Our Girls Twin Cities March
May 11, 2014

“Thanks to organizers and to all of you for being here.

“I’m here as a lawyer and deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit based in Minneapolis that works on human rights issues around the world.

“But I’m also here as a mother. My kids Simon and Eliza are here today as well to stand in honor of the nearly 300 girls abducted simply because they were pursuing their human right to education. I think that’s pretty much the best Mother’s Day gift they could give me.

“There are a lot of things that we don’t know about the situation in Nigeria. We don’t know where the girls are or what is happening to them. We don’t even know the exact number abducted and we only know a few of their names. We can only imagine the agony their families are going through.

“But the tragedy of the nearly 300 girls in Chibok shines a spotlight on the systemic human rights abuses against faced by women and girls worldwide.

“And there are many things we do know about violations of the rights of girls and women:

  • “We know that girls around the world lack equal access to basic education (in the NE region of Nigeria where these girls lived, girl enrollment is the lowest in the country –  only 22%). In part, they were targeted because they were seeking an education that would change their lives.
  • “Educating girls, we know, is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality. It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development
  • “We know that girls and women are not valued equally as boys and men in many parts of the world. The Nigerian government’s lack of action both before and after certainly makes it seem that these girls were not deemed worthy of protection.
  • “We know that when these girls are found and hopefully rescued, they will need support in the form of psychosocial and health care. Women’s access to health care is woefully limited.
  • “We know that 1 in 3 girls under age 18 are still being forced into marriage too early. By some estimates, that’s about 14 million girls a year. Too many girls still endure harmful traditional cultural practices such as FGM.
  • “We know that girls and women suffer the most in times of conflict. What these girls have experienced is likely a war crime. Trafficking remains a huge problem around the world and in our own community.
  • “We know that 1 in 3 of the world’s women experience violence, including domestic violence (The Advocates for Human Rights works on domestic violence legal reform around the world);

“And we know that these are all things that have to change.

“We need to do more to push our governments to make this change a priority. We can’t stop with just these 276 girls.

#BringBackOurGirls' Mother's Day march, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota
#BringBackOurGirls’ Mother’s Day march, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota

“Now these are human rights abuses that may seem intractable. It may seem like you are powerless to make a difference. But you can:

  • “Continue to educate yourself about girls and women’s rights. Here in the Twin Cities, there are many opportunities. Through The Advocates for Human Rights alone, you can attend the free St. Paul Public Library Women’s Rights Film series, learn more about the issues on www.StopVAW.org, or participate in our Human Rights Book Club.
  • “Support the NGOs that work on issues you care about. No amount is too small – a little money really does go a long way in this area.
  • “Write to our members of Congress and the President to encourage support for women’s rights as a critical part of our US foreign policy.
  • “For those of you with young people in your lives, teach them about the world around them so that they will grow up to continue the fight to ensure that every child, wherever he or she lives in the world, has the chance to live in safety and dignity and to achieve their greatest human potential.

“For those of you doubting whether sharing this story on social media really makes a difference, I’d like to share a message I got on my blog from a woman named Winnie in Nigeria:

“‘we here in nigeria are so angry and feel very helpless, the government and opposition leaders have politicized this, while our daughters are still in captivity. the government officials do not want to listen to ‘ordinary’ people. and word  has it that the Nigerian press have been ordered to kill the story (as the have killed other stories in the past).  pls this is a passionate plea to the international community to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.’

Jennifer Prestholdt speaking at the Mother’s Day March to #BringBackOurGirls

“Here in the Twin Cities and all around the world, we are working to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.

“And after our girls come home, I hope we can keep working together for a future where all girls around the world can go to school in safety and grow up to reach their full human potential.”

By: Jennifer Prestholdt is the deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights and the director of the organization’s International Justice Program. She has a B.A. in political science from Yale and a M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she studied international human rights law and international refugee policy. She graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1996.

Ms. Prestholdt has worked on refugee and asylum issues for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. She has also interned for the Reebok Human Rights Program and the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination Against and Protection of Minorities. Prior to becoming Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights, she practiced asylum law for five years as the director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program. As The Advocates’ deputy director, she assists in fundraising for and directing organizational operations. Ms. Prestholdt also supervises the development and administration of International Justice programming. She has also taught International Human Rights Law as an adjunct faculty member at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

 

Take Notice: Nigeria Abductions Are Not an Anomaly

Photo: Twitter.WomenGirlsLead
Photo: Twitter.WomenGirlsLead

Like many other people, I am outraged by the April 14 abduction of hundreds of young girls from their school in northeastern Nigeria by the insurgent group Boko Haram. The group attacked again on May 6, kidnapping eight more girls–this time from their homes–to prevent them from attending school. While we do not know exactly where the girls were taken or how they are being treated, it is likely that many of them will be raped and sold into sexual slavery. Some of the girls are as young as 12, and as a mother I can only imagine the nightmare the girls and their parents must be living.

I join the calls to the Nigerian government, the Obama administration, and other world leaders demanding that they do what needs to be done to free the girls and bring those responsible to justice. But bringing the girls home is only the first step in answering the contorted message the kidnappings were designed to send: that women are property and girls should not be educated.

The Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, who has spoken out against the kidnappings, reportedly asserted at a conference in March that the Boko Haram insurgency is an “anomaly” in the socio-religious environment of Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims live in harmony with each other and with people of other faiths. I do not dispute that position and sincerely hope that he is right. But while extremist organizations such as Boko Haram may be anomalous in Nigerian society, the assault on girls’ education globally is not.

We live in a world where, for some girls, simply learning to read is a courageous and life-threatening act of defiance.In March 2013, a principal in Karachi, Pakistan was killed when grenades were hurled into his school, which specialized in enrolling girls. A teacher in a different part of Pakistan was gunned down in front of the all-girls school where she had taught only a week earlier. In the spring and summer of 2013, over 400 girls in Afghanistan fell ill from suspected gas poisonings in at least half a dozen schools. The assassination attempt against Malala Yousafzai for promoting girls’ education in Pakistan is well-known.

The net enrollment rate in 2008 for girls in secondary school in Nigeria was just 22%. In northern Nigeria, where the kidnappings occurred, only 3% of girls finish secondary school and more than 50% are married by the age of 16.  The situation in Nigeria is sadly representative of a wider pattern. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, girls in Pakistan had a secondary school enrollment rate of 29%, as compared to 40% for boys. Rates are even lower in Chad, where only 5% of girls received a secondary education, as compared to 16% of boys. Nor is the problem endemic only to countries with a majority Muslim population. In Nepal, school enrollment rates for boys are 14 percentage points higher than for girls. These statistics reflect a cultural undercurrent that creates powerful disincentives for girls to educate themselves, ensuring that women remain powerless, objectified, and vulnerable to forced marriages and sexual slavery.

I do not mean to suggest that we have it all figured out here in the United States. Sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses are on the rise, femicides are seventh in line as causes of early death among females in the United States, and our most recent census report confirmed that—despite decades of working for equality—women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. But I know that I am lucky. I am a shareholder in a successful law firm that not only supports me, but has been lauded as one of the best in the nation for women attorneys. I have been successful, first and foremost, because I was born into a family that never questioned whether I would go to college; it was simply assumed.

But is it possible to change cultural norms in other countries? And even if we could, what place is it of ours? To answer the second question, we are no longer isolated on this planet. The diminution of women everywhere affects all of us, by preventing economic growth, destabilizing societies and even planting the seeds that allow terrorism to flourish. Education is a fundamental human right that belongs to everyone, boys and girls, everywhere. It is everyone’s responsibility to address harmful cultural practices that result in human rights violations. We can and should work towards universal education in all parts of the world.

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Student of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Sankhu-Palubari Community School, near Kathmandu, Nepal

The notion that there is nothing we can really do is wrong. Since the fall of the Taliban, the enrollment of girls in primary school in Afghanistan has risen from virtually none to approximately 37%.

I know from personal experience that norms against educating girls can be changed. In 1999, the Advocates for Human Rights founded a school in a village in Nepal where education rates for children were extremely low. The school’s basic admission criteria were that the students must be low income, and the student body must be 50% girls. Parents of these children, when interviewed, expressed sincere doubts about the value of education for their children—especially the girls. Over time these views have changed dramatically. When I visited the school in 2011, the parents  no longer questioned why they should educate their children. Instead, they demanded that The Advocates expand the school to include more grades. Many of the girls who have graduated from our school are now studying at the University. It’s only a drop in the global bucket, but it’s a start.

By: Dulce Foster, attorney with Fredrikson and Byron, is a long-time volunteer and supporter of the Advocates for Human Rights. She has provided immeasurable leadership for the organization’s Nepal School Project and for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Project.

In her legal practice with Fredrikson and Byron, Foster defends, investigates, and advises clients in criminal and civil matters involving financial fraud, healthcare fraud, corruption, FCPA, trade secrets theft, illegal immigration, False Claims Act and other regulatory concerns.

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

hunger strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community adopts a grassroots approach

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

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

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

Oromos unite to advocate for victims, justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Hold a hunger strike May 9-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Engage in advocacy with elected officials

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

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

5. Work on bringing the perpetrators to justice

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

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

6. Establish a crisis response team

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

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

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

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

8. Write a press release

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

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

This post is the third in a four-part series about human rights in Ethiopia. Part 1 describes the important role the Oromo diaspora is playing in remotely monitoring recent human rights developments in Ethiopia. Part 2 highlights the May 6 Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations. Part 4 tells the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family members on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and recaps the Ethiopian Government’s response to the UN review.

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

Top photo credit: Amane Bedaso, facebook

More posts in this series:

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

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