Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Members of the Oromo diaspora line up to share their ideas for showing support for the student protests in Oromia. Photo credit: Big Z, facebook: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10104545944303110&set=a.10104545941633460.1073741836.13914917&type=1&theater
Members of the Oromo diaspora line up to share their ideas for showing support for the student protests in Oromia. Photo credit: Big Z, facebook.

The Oromo Community of Minnesota hall was packed yesterday afternoon. Twice we scooted our chairs forward to make room for the crowds at the back; our knees were pressed up against the backs of the chairs in front of us. And when community members took the microphone, we could hear a pin drop. People I spoke with said the turnout and show of unity were unprecedented. The Oromo diaspora in Minnesota was gathering together to develop strategies to show support for the student protests that have been breaking out over the past two weeks in their homeland.

Who are the Oromo people?
The Oromo people are near and dear to my heart. I learned about them first-hand when I taught social studies for English Language Learners at Minneapolis South High School. Most of my ELL students were newly arrived refugees from Ethiopia. But many bristled at being called “Ethiopians.” They identified themselves as Oromos, and their homeland was Oromia—the largest of nine federal states in Ethiopia.

The Oromos are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and there are Oromos in northern Kenya and parts of Somalia as well. Oromos speak Oromiffa, or Afan Oromo, a Cushitic language that shares approximately 35% of its vocabulary with Somali. Approximately 47% of Oromos are Muslim, and a similar percentage are Christian. As a civics teacher, I was fascinated to learn that the Oromo people had a sophisticated traditional system of democratic governance called the Gadaa system.

The Oromo people have long faced persecution from the Ethiopian Government and in Ethiopian society. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to leave teaching and become a human rights lawyer was to try to play a role in stemming the systematic human rights abuses that had driven my refugee students away from their homelands. The Advocates for Human Rights highlighted some of the persecution that Oromos face in a stakeholder report for the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia, which takes place tomorrow in Geneva.

Oromo students are mobilizing for change in Oromia

Last month, the Ethiopian Government announced a controversial “Integrated Development Master Plan for Addis Ababa.” The Ethiopian capital, which Oromos call Finfinnee, is surrounded by the state of Oromia. The Master Plan would expand the territory of Addis Ababa, annexing thousands of hectares of Oromia’s fertile agricultural lands, and then selling or leasing them to commercial agricultural enterprises.

Oromo students sounded the alarm about the Master Plan, recognizing that it would displace Oromo farmers and leave them without a livelihood or access to their traditional lands.

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.

Students have been staging protests at 12 universities in Oromia. Last week, federal special forces opened fire on what seems to have been a peaceful student demonstration at Ambo University. The government has confirmed 11 fatalities, but people on the ground say the toll is closer to 50. The Ethiopian government asserts that the protests have been led by “anti-peace forces.”

One Oromo diasporan based in London told me that his sister fled Meda Welabu University in Oromia on Sunday after military forces took control from the local police and then began beating students. She saw one student killed.

Students in several universities have been under lock-down, ordered confined to their dormitory rooms and not allowed to leave campus. There are reports that officers come through the dorms at night and arrest people. One female student leader is being kept incommunicado, raising concerns that she is being ill-treated. At transportation check-points, officials check passengers’ identification and detain people with student IDs. Students who have fled are not allowed back on campus.

Getting the word out: The power of remote monitoring
Ethiopia has one of the most restrictive governments in the world. There are no independent local media organizations. No Ethiopian non-governmental organizations work openly on controversial human rights issues, and international human rights groups have been expelled from the country.

In these circumstances, it’s nearly impossible to safely conduct human rights monitoring on the ground. Oromos in the diaspora have expressed frustration that major international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been silent about the protests.

Remote human rights monitoring is a critical tool for diaspora communities like the Oromo who want to show support for and solidarity with human rights defenders on the ground in their countries of origin. In 2009, The Advocates published a report based on a remote fact-finding project here in Minnesota called Human Rights in Ethiopia: Through the Eyes of the Oromo Diaspora. The report has been used for advocacy at the United Nations and in support of applications for asylum. In our new toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities, we expanded on the human rights monitoring we did with the Oromo diaspora to develop an entire chapter on remote monitoring strategies.

Oromo diaspora mobilizes to conduct remote monitoring
Over the past two weeks, the Oromo diaspora has mobilized to shine an international spotlight on the protests. Like many diaspora groups, Oromos outside of Ethiopia maintain contacts with friends and family “back home,” some of whom have been victims of police violence or have witnessed events. Through telephone calls, text messages, email, and social media, Oromos in the diaspora have their fingers on the pulse of the student protest movement in Oromia.

Oromos in Minnesota held a candlelight vigil to remember the Oromo protesters who were killed last week.
Oromos in Minnesota held a candlelight vigil to remember the Oromo protesters who were killed last week.

The Oromo diaspora has been buzzing on social media, quickly adopting the #OromoProtests hashtag to allow people around the world to follow and contribute to the remote monitoring process. People are posting photos of victims on twitter and uploading video of some of the demonstrations to YouTube. The Oromos I’ve talked to have also recommended following certain prominent Oromos on facebook and twitter who have the trust of Oromos on the ground and feed them breaking news. Ayantu Tibeso has compiled a list on facebook of ways that diasporans can support the Oromo protests and get involved in raising awareness. Paving Pathways includes an appendix on effective human rights advocacy using social media platforms, and the Oromo diaspora is deploying many of these tactics. I’ll be using one of my favorite social media strategies—live tweeting—during the UN’s Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia tomorrow morning.

The Oromo diaspora also has more traditional media, including the newly launched Oromia Media Network, Oromo Voice Radio, as well as diaspora blogs and news websites like Gadaa.com, Ayyantuu News Online, and O-Pride. These media have helped consolidate information into useful posts, first-hand accounts, and broadcasts for people who are unable to keep up with the flurry of activity on twitter, facebook, and YouTube. And they have started a more systematic effort to verify reports of deaths and injuries, maintaining lists of victims and connecting photos with dates and locations.

The diaspora’s efforts are beginning to get traction with mainstream media, with some initial coverage from the BBC, Voice of America, Think Africa Press, and an editorial piece in Al Jazeera America. Human Rights Watch just published a statement. A Minnesota-based radio program called Reflections of New Minnesotans just released a podcast of a show it did with two members of the Oromo diaspora talking about recent developments in Oromia.

Oromo youths prepared a video showing photos and YouTube clips of the Oromo student protests and government crack-down.
Oromo youths prepared a video showing photos and YouTube clips of the Oromo student protests and government crack-down for the Oromo Community of Minnesota forum on Sunday.

Momentum is building, and Oromos in the diaspora are pressing mainstream media and human rights organizations to raise visibility on the issues. They’re planning protests around the world on Friday, May 9. But diasporans who want to pitch stories and lobby policymakers will need to undertake careful remote monitoring to find receptive audiences. With the restrictions on civil society in Ethiopia, reporters, lawmakers, human rights organizations outside of the country will need to work with the Oromo diaspora to verify sources and confirm reports coming out of Oromia.

This post is the first in a four-part series about human rights in Ethiopia. Part 2  highlights the May 6 Universal Periodic Review of Ethiopia at the United Nations. Part 3 explores the Oromo diaspora’s strategies for showing solidarity with the Oromo students while pushing for human rights and holding perpetrators accountable for the violence against peaceful demonstrators. Part 4 tells the stories of Oromos in the diaspora who have spoken with friends and family members on the ground in Oromia about events over the past three weeks, and recaps the Ethiopian Government’s response to the UN review.

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

More posts in this series:

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

The Advocates’ Robin Phillips Testifies before Congressional Committee

RobinTLHRCTestimony

Robin Phillips, executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights, testified today (April 4, 2014) at a hearing before the United States Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission about religious minorities in India.

Robin Phillips’ oral testimony, “The Plight of Religious Minorities in India”:

For more than 30 years, The Advocates for Human Rights has worked with diaspora communities—people living outside their country of origin or ancestry who retain ties to and interest in that country. Some come to the United States seeking asylum after facing religious persecution. Others come as professionals or students, or to join family members. And some are second- or third-generation immigrants. They are part of our communities, they are your constituents, and their voices should help inform our policies toward their countries of origin and ancestry.

Indian diaspora sounds alarm about religious freedom in India

The Indian diaspora groups with whom we work have consistently expressed concern about religious freedom in India. We share their concerns, including: communal violence; impunity for the instigators of such violence and those in government who may be complicit; anti-conversion laws; vague anti-terrorism laws that facilitate profiling and persecution of Muslims; police and armed forces practices such as encounter killings and torture targeting Muslims; and a culture of impunity for such practices. These practices violate international human rights standards.

Consistent with the concerns we hear, the Pew Research Center recently ranked India as a country with “very high social hostilities involving religion” and “high” government restrictions on religion.

Indian diasporans around the world have been sounding the alarm as elections approach. In the first eight months of 2013, there were 451 incidents of communal violence, up from 410 in all of 2012. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief cautions that “political exploitation of communal distinctions” presents “a real risk that [large scale] communal violence might happen again.”

Multifaceted impunity fuels communal violence

Impunity fuels communal violence. This impunity is multifaceted: officials do not hold private parties accountable for communal violence; courts do not hold government officials accountable for sanctioning or encouraging that violence; political parties rally behind political leaders who are implicated in communal violence; obstruction of justice and witness intimidation are commonplace in court procedures; immunity laws shield security forces from accountability; and officials accept torture and extrajudicial killings as the norm.

Some examples raised by Indian diasporans highlight these points. Cases brought against officials alleged to be complicit in the 2002 Gujarat violence have been dismissed for lack of evidence after witnesses were intimidated and prosecutors and judges effectively stood in as defense counsel. UN human rights bodies have described the proceedings as “flawed from the outset,” reflecting concerns of religious bias and high levels of corruption. Whistleblowers in Gujarat law enforcement have faced threats and arrests.

Wounds of past communal violence still fresh, especially for women

The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women visited India last May. She observed that communal violence in India “is frequently explained away by implying that equal aggression was noted on both sides.” By characterizing this violence as “riots,” the government “den[ies] the lack of security for religious . . . minorities, . . . disregarding their right to equal citizenship.” “This issue is of particular concern to many,” the Special Rapporteur noted at the end of her visit last May, “as the wounds of the past are still fresh for women who were beaten, stripped naked, burnt, raped [or] killed because of their religious identity, in the Gujarat massacre of 2002.”

In some communal attacks, police reportedly arrest victims and protect the attackers. And the government has been negligent in its duties to victims displaced by communal violence who are afraid to return home. These internally displaced persons continue to languish in subhuman conditions in isolated settlements.

Human rights defenders and Muslims face harassment, threats, arbitrary arrest

Human rights defenders report serious problems with increased police harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention of Muslims based on false charges of terrorism. Religious minorities have been targeted under an anti-terrorism law that expands the definition of “terrorism”; authorizes warrantless search, seizure, and arrest; and allows detention without charge for up to 180 days.

Indian police confident of impunity for torturing people

While in custody, many suspects are also subject to torture and ill-treatment. The independent Ravi Chander Commission reported that Muslim men were held without charge for several weeks at illegal detention centers and tortured to extract forced confessions of terrorism offenses. In my own personal discussions with Indian police officers, they have been alarmingly candid about their use of torture as a legitimate interrogation technique, signifying a complete disregard for international standards and confidence of impunity for these human rights violations. Not surprisingly, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture’s request for permission to visit India has been pending for more than 20 years.

Attorneys for religious minorities face threats, violence

The due process rights of accused religious minorities have been further diminished by interference with obtaining legal counsel. Attorneys representing Gujarat victims have faced threats, intimidation, and hostility from colleagues. Multiple bar associations have issued official or unofficial resolutions instructing members not to represent terrorism suspects; there have also been reported incidents of harassment and physical violence against lawyers who represent Muslim defendants.

“Encounter killings” have become state policy in India

In addition, “encounter killings,” or killings that occur during staged clashes between security forces and alleged armed suspects are becoming increasingly common. The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions reported last year that encounter killings “have become virtually a part of unofficial State policy.”

U.S. must ensure India adequately protects rights of religious minorities

As the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief observed after a 2008 visit to India, “impunity emboldens forces of intolerance.” There is a serious possibility of increased violence against religious minorities in India in connection with the upcoming elections. India cannot abrogate its obligation to protect the human rights of its citizens in the name of national security. The United States and India stand as democratic and pluralistic nations. As such, we must hold each other accountable to the highest standards of human rights protection. We encourage the United States to take strong bilateral and multilateral action to ensure that the rights of religious minorities in India are adequately protected and that India complies with all of its international human rights obligations.

Robin Phillips’ testimony begins at approximately :59:15 in the video of the hearing:

Read The Advocates for Human Rights’ November 2011 report on religious discrimination to the UN Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review of India, prepared in collaboration with the Indian American Muslim Council and Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association.

Diaspora organizations and individuals who want to shape human rights in their countries of origin or ancestry can use The Advocates’ new toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities.

India’s Politics Without Principles

India’s Politics Without Principles

by Jennifer Prestholdt

Raj Ghat,  Mahatma Gandhi Memorial

New Delhi, India

On my first trip to India last year, I visited Raj Ghat in New Delhi.   Raj Ghat (or Rajghat) is the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial and, as Ghandi has long been one of my human rights heroes, I was glad to have this opportunity to pay my respects to the man whose lessons of non-violence and human rights have had such an impact on our world.  Gandhi is known as the “Father of the Nation” because of his pivotal role in India’s independence movement.  But how far has Gandhi’s beloved India come in fulfilling his vision for humanity?  From Raj Ghat, I went directly to a meeting with Indian human rights activists. They told us that, while important reforms have been made recently to protect the human rights of its 1.21 billion citizens, India still has a long way to go to adequately protect the rights of its religious minorities.

Gandhi was cremated at Raj Ghat, on the Yamuna River, on January 31, 1948, the day after he was assassinated. Raj Ghat is  a solemn space, a large, walled enclosure purposefully left open to the air and the white-hot sun of central India. It is set within an even larger park, with flagstone paths and shade trees – grandeur and greenery that that surprised me in a city as crowded as Delhi.  Yet Raj Ghat itself is true to the simple life that Gandhi himself chose.  As you walk around the upper level, on a path bordered by flowers and creeping vines, you can see the square platform in the center that marks the site of Gandhi’s cremation. The black marble is so smooth that it reflects and extends the eternal flame that burns at one end of the monument, like a torch lighting the way forward in the dark of night.  The red soil of his dear homeland surrounds the marble samadhi, as in life Gandhi rejected the green lawns of the English colonialists, choosing instead to leave the grounds of his residences in their natural state.

To enter Raj Ghat, you must remove your shoes.  This is a sign of respect, one that I honor, but I admit to never having pictured myself meeting my idol in sock feet.  It was in sock feet, however, that, in the cool shade of the thick stone walls, I walked the perimeter of the memorial.  On the walls of the memorial are quotes from Gandhi, inscribed in the many languages of the Indian people as well as other world languages. Raj Ghat is a contemplative place; in concert with this, visitors are encouraged to circle the memorial three times.  My first time around, near the marble platform,  I stopped short.  Before me, inscribed in black on the red sandstone wall, were words of deep truth, Ghandi’s “Seven Social Sins,” first published in 1926 in the newspaper Young India.

Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins remain apt nearly 100 years later.  They are:

POLITICS WITHOUT PRINCIPLES

WEALTH WITHOUT WORK

PLEASURE WITHOUT CONSCIENCE

KNOWLEDGE WITHOUT CHARACTER

COMMERCE WITHOUT MORALITY

SCIENCE WITHOUT HUMANITY

WORSHIP WITHOUT SACRIFICE

Mahatma Gandhi’s words have stayed with me.  Unlike the foreign dignitaries who visit Raj Ghat, I did not receive a khadi scroll imprinted with the Seven Social Sins.  But they are written in my heart as distinctly as they are carved on that sandstone wall.

Certainly, the words were fresh in my mind later that afternoon at a meeting with Indian human rights activists. Over cups of masala tea, these human rights defenders told us about the alarming rise in discrimination and violence against religious minorities – particularly Muslims and Christians – in various states across India, including Gujarat, Orissa and Karnataka. While discrimination and violence against Muslims has long been a problem in India (including communal attacks targeting Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 that killed nearly 2000 and displaced as many as 140,000), these courageous human rights activists have documented the increasingly systematic discrimination and violence in the name of counter-terrorism since a series of bombings in 2007 and 2008.  One group, Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD), published a report in 2011 containing the testimony of scores of Indian Muslims at a People’s Tribunal on the Atrocities Committed Against Muslims in the Name of Fighting Terrorism.  As they described their experiences, as well as the impunity enjoyed by security forces and non-state actors that targeted religious minorities in the name of counter-terrorism, I thought again of Gandhi.   Allowing human rights abuses to be committed against a broad category of people in the name of the fight against terrorism is indeed practicing “Politics Without Principles”.

Later in 2011, and partly as a result of what we learned at this meeting, The Advocates for Human Rights made a submission to the Human Rights Council for the 2012 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of India.  Our submission, made jointly with the Indian American Muslim Council in the United States and the Jamia Teacher Solidarity Association (along with input from other Indian human rights organizations) in India, addresses India’s failure to comply with its international human rights obligations to protect members of minority groups.

Additionally, our submission highlights the failure of the Indian government to adequately investigate and effectively prosecute perpetrators of human rights violations against members of minority groups.

I was in Geneva on May 24 for the Second Universal Periodic Review of India. The Indian government sent a large delegation, headed by the Attorney General. India clearly viewed the UPR process as both serious and important.  The Human Rights Council is a human rights mechanism designed to be an interactive dialogue between governments.  I was gratified to see Human Rights Council delegates from 20 countries address the issues raised in our submission, including the recommendation from the United States to “Ensure that laws are fully and consistently enforced to provide adequate protections for members of religious minorities…”

Statue of Gandhi at the United Nations
Geneva, Switzerland

The Human Rights Council made 169 recommendations to India. The government promised to respond “in due time” but no later than September 2012.

India’s large and religiously diverse population makes it one of the most pluralistic societies in the world. The Indian Constitution provides all citizens with the “right to equality before the law,” the right to “the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”, and the “right to freedom of speech and expression”. Further, it specifies that “no person who is arrested shall be detained in custody without being informed, as soon as may be, of the grounds for such arrest” and that every person arrested be presented to the nearest magistrate within 24 hours of the arrest.

India has made great progress in setting up a domestic legal framework to protect human rights and must be commended for that. India must now end the practice of  “Politics Without Principles” and implement and effectively enforce these laws in a manner that protects the rights of members of its religious minority communities.

By Jennifer Prestholdt, Deputy Director and International Justice Program Director