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The Fight Against the Death Penalty Continues

Brunei
Brunei Darussalam’s delegation at the UN Human Rights Council 

In May 2019, the United Nations Human Rights Council held its 33rd session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), as part of the third cycle of the review process. The UPR examines the status and progress of human rights in all 193 member countries of the United Nations. (For more information about the UPR, check out Chapter 9 of Human Rights Tool for a Changing World here.) Among other countries, both the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Brunei Darussalam received recommendations to further their progress toward abolishing the death penalty.

Both countries have a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. Brunei has had no reported executions since 1957, and the DRC has had the moratorium since 2003. But neither country has ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to officially move toward abolition of the death penalty. Even though international human rights standards mandate that countries retaining the death penalty must reserve it for only the most serious crimes, Brunei continues to sentence people by hanging for far less.

Under the Syariah Penal Code, adultery, sodomy, rape, apostasy, blasphemy, and insulting Islam are all punishable by death by stoning in Brunei. In the DRC, the administration of the death penalty lacks transparency. Just last year, the government handed down 41 death sentences.

At the Universal Periodic Review

Due to these issues, at the UPR in May both countries faced increasing pressure to abolish the death penalty. Brunei Darussalam received 96 recommendations on the death penalty from 50 countries–38.6% of all recommendations the country received, and a 336% increase from Brunei’s second cycle UPR. The recommendations ranged from ratification of the Convention against Torture to repealing problematic provisions in the Penal Code. The DRC received death penalty recommendations from 17 countries, an increase of 13.3% from the second cycle.

The Advocates, together with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, pushed for these recommendations behind the scenes. The two organizations submitted joint stakeholder reports on both countries. (To read the full reports, visit: Brunei and the DRC). Through both emails and in-person meetings, The Advocates lobbied 48 of the 50 countries that made death penalty recommendations to Brunei Darussalam, and 16 out of the 17 countries that made death penalty recommendations to the DRC.

A Lack of Progress?

After taking months to examine the recommendations from May, last month both Brunei Darussalam and the DRC “noted” all the recommendations relevant to the death penalty. In the language of the UN, noted means rejected. Both countries cited their respective sovereignty over the issue as the reason for rejecting the recommendations. Brunei Darussalam used the country’s religious background to justify the current use the death penalty in the Penal Code. Many countries and organizations, including Belgium and the UK, urged the government of Brunei to reconsider its decision. Similarly, a representative of the government of the DRC told the Human Rights Council that the nation’s own parliament should make the final decision on the death penalty. A delegate from Germany, however, urged the DRC to ratify the Second Protocol.

Despite noting these recommendations in the official meeting, the Brunei government took a small step forward. On May 6, the Brunei government announced that it would extend its moratorium on capital punishment to the crimes of homosexuality and adultery. Under laws that had taken effect in April, the two crimes would otherwise have been eligible for the death sentence of stoning. Furthermore, a representative from the government of Brunei told the Human Rights Council that the government had been making progress toward ratifying the Convention Against Torture. Many governments and non-governmental organizations welcomed this move.

The fight persists

This small victory, however, should not overshadow the larger picture. Despite overall progress toward abolition of the death penalty, many countries’ practices are far removed from international human rights standards. The cases of Brunei Darussalam and the DRC signal the difficulty ahead. The Advocates will continue to fight for a humane justice system on an international level.

To learn more about the death penalty, please visit our website here. Also, October 10 is the 2019 World Day against the Death Penalty, and encourage you to get involved.

To watch the full videos of the September 2019 meetings of the Human Rights Council adopting the outcomes of the UPRs of Brunei and the DRC, please visit the links below:

Brunei Darussalam

The Democratic Republic of Congo

By: Yunze Wang, an intern with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights and a student at Macalester College.

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Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

 

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The delegation from Ukraine, led by H.E. Mr. Sergiy Petukhov, Deputy Minister of Justice of Ukraine for the European Integration, speaks during Ukraine’s Universal Periodic Review on November 15, 2017. Source: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/universal-periodic-review/28th-upr/watch/ukraine-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5647215634001#

For the 3rd cycle Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Ukraine, The Advocates for Human Rights submitted a stakeholder report in collaboration with Center “Women’s Perspectives,” a non-governmental agency based in Lviv, Ukraine. The report focused on the prevalence of domestic violence in Ukraine.

Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in Ukraine. In 2016, the Ministry of Social Policy recorded 96,143 complaints of domestic violence, and data indicate that the number of complaints has been on the rise by 10% per year. The legal system fails to adequately protect women, a problem exacerbated by ongoing political conflict.  Ukraine has not yet created a specific crime of domestic violence, nor has it specifically defined gender-based violence in its laws. A package of laws to address violence against women passed a first hearing in Parliament in 2016, but was sent back to a working group over concerns the draft laws were harmful to traditional family values. Members of Parliament have asked the working group to remove references to “gender” and “sexual orientation” and to allow religious groups to sit on the Working Group. Ukraine has yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. Victim services remain insufficient and underfunded.

During the UPR in early November 2017, 70 countries made 190 recommendations to Ukraine, 29 of which were related to domestic violence or violence against women. This marks a significant increase from the four domestic violence-related recommendations made in 2012, a sign that more countries are taking note of conditions in Ukraine.

After the review, the country can either accept or reject the recommendations, and can choose to provide an additional response if it wishes to explain its decision. The UPR process also gives the state under review the option to delay its response to some or all of the recommendations. Ukraine has decided to defer decision on all of its recommendations and will have until March 2018 (the 37th session of the Human Rights Council) to submit an addendum with its responses to the recommendations.

By Laura Dahl, a 2017 graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in Global Studies and Neuroscience. She is a Fall 2017 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the fourth in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates’ work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

 

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

Sri Lanka photo 1 SL delegation
The delegation from Sri Lanka, led by H.E. Mr. Harsha De Silva, Deputy Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs of Sri Lanka, at the November 15th, 2017 UPR of Sri Lanka. Source: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/universal-periodic-review/watch/sri-lanka-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5648383899001#

The Advocates for Human Rights serves on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. In that capacity, The Advocates often collaborates with the World Coalition to engage in advocacy at the United Nations when a UN body reviews the human rights record of a country that retains the death penalty.

One recent example is Sri Lanka. The Advocates, in collaboration with The World Coalition, submitted a stakeholder report about the death penalty in Sri Lanka for consideration during the country’s third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council.

Sri Lanka acknowledges itself as a de facto abolitionist state and carried out its last execution in 1976. Yet Sri Lankan courts continue to sentence defendants to death and the country’s constitution still authorizes the use of the death penalty. According to Amnesty International, in 2016 Sri Lankan courts sentenced at least 79 people to death and an estimated 1,000 prisoners were under sentence of death.

During Sri Lanka’s second UPR in 2012, six countries made recommendations that called on Sri Lanka to abolish the death penalty or consider a formal moratorium. Sri Lanka rejected all six recommendations. Since then, President Sirisena and his government have made positive public statements suggesting they are working toward abolishing the death penalty. In a speech given at the 30th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September 2015, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka reinforced that the Sri Lankan Government was committed to maintaining the moratorium on the death penalty, with a view to its ultimate abolition. In December 2016, Sri Lanka voted with 116 Member States of the United Nations to support a universal moratorium on the death penalty.

The public statements made by Sri Lanka were reinforced by the country’s increased openness to UPR recommendations. During its latest UPR on November 15th, 2017, Sri Lanka accepted three of thirteen recommendations made on the death penalty.

In 2012, Sri Lanka rejected three recommendations that urged considering abolition of the death penalty: “Consider the definite abolishment of the death penalty in its internal legislation” (Argentina and Ecuador) and “Seriously consider the possibility to abolish capital punishment” (Italy). In 2017, Sri Lanka accepted two remarkably similar recommendations: “Consider to abolish the death penalty” (Italy) and “Consider abolishing the death penalty” (Timor-Leste). Sri Lanka’s willingness to accept such recommendations may indicate changing government attitudes toward the practice.

Sri Lanka pays particular attention to the specific wording of recommendations. Sri Lanka’s new-found willingness to accept death penalty recommendations extends only to accepting recommendations that don’t bind them to any decision — all three accepted recommendations begin with some form of the word “consider.” For example:

  • Sri Lanka accepted, “Consider ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at abolishing the death penalty” (Uruguay) but rejected “Ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty” (Montenegro, Spain).
  • Similarly, Sri Lanka accepted “Consider abolishing the death penalty” (Timor-Leste) but rejected “Abolish the death penalty” (Australia). Sri Lanka rejected seven comparable recommendations, even those that recommended “taking steps” towards abolition.
Sri Lanka photo 2 Timor Leste gives rec
Mr. Aurélio Barros, representative from Timor-Leste, delivers his country’s recommendations to Sri Lanka during the November 15th UPR. Source: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/universal-periodic-review/watch/sri-lanka-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5648383899001#

To be sure, a recommendation to “consider” abolition of the death penalty is not as strong as a recommendation to abolish the death penalty. The fact that some governments made weaker recommendations and some made stronger recommendations nevertheless gives us some insights into Sri Lanka’s evolving position on the death penalty. And we expect the Sri Lankan government to take concrete steps between now and its next UPR in 2022 to explore how abolition could be incorporated into the Penal Code and Constitution or to conduct public awareness surveys on the popularity of the practice. Perhaps by the time Sri Lanka is up for its fourth-cycle UPR, the country will have had enough opportunity for careful consideration to be able to definitely abolish the death penalty.

By Laura Dahl, a 2017 graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in Global Studies and Neuroscience. She is a Fall 2017 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the third in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

UN HRC room
The Human Rights Council chambers in Geneva, Switzerland. UN Photo/Elma Okic. Source: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=56915#.WjhEE7T83_Q

Since 2014, a growing number of women and children fleeing gender-based violence in Guatemala have requested legal assistance from The Advocates in applying for asylum in the United States. Using information from interviews with these clients, The Advocates documented violence against women in Guatemala and submitted a stakeholder report to the United Nations Human Rights Council for consideration during Guatemala’s third-cycle Universal Periodic Review, which took place on November 8, 2017.

Violence against women remains a serious problem in Guatemala, especially as the country continues to struggle to implement protective measures and programs. In the first ten months of 2015, the public ministry reported receiving 11,449 reports of sexual or physical aggression against women. In the first seven months of 2015, there were 29,128 complaints of domestic violence against women and 501 violent deaths of women.

Due to lack of protection and high rates of impunity, many women choose to leave the country rather than face potential reprisals and stigma. Domestic violence is also a significant push factor for unaccompanied child migrants.

The Advocates is able to help these women and children in two important ways: providing legal assistance in their asylum cases and using their experiences to advocate at the United Nations for law and policy changes in their home country of Guatemala.

There are several steps involved in bringing these individual stories to an international stage.

First, The Advocates drafted a report documenting violence against women in Guatemala, based on research on country conditions and client interviews. The Advocates submitted this stakeholder report to the Human Rights Council for consideration during Guatemala’s Universal Periodic Review. After the report was complete, I drafted a two-page summary that outlined the key information and suggested recommendations. I then reviewed countries that made recommendations to Guatemala during its second UPR in 2012, and selected 27 countries to lobby based on their past support for eliminating gender-based violence. I emailed these countries, thanking them for their interest in women’s issues and updating them on the status of past recommendations they made to Guatemala. I sent them the full report on Guatemala as well as the summary document.

The purpose of lobbying other countries is twofold— to alert the country to the dire situation in Guatemala and to provide suggested recommendations based on our report. The country under review must acknowledge the recommendations, which can serve as a rebuke for missteps as well as a blueprint for areas to improve.

For example, Guatemala received and accepted recommendations during its second-cycle UPR in 2012 to strengthen the 2008 Law Against Femicide. In order to implement these recommendations, the government established several agencies and institutions to give effect to the law, and created lower level courts. Yet weak implementation of these tools meant there was little reduction in levels of violence against women. In addition, there is no law against sexual harassment, despite its ubiquity. The partial implementation of these 2012 recommendations speaks to the importance of creating targeted recommendations, the success of which can be measured on a defined timeline.

Guatemala photo 2 Guatemala delegation
The delegation from Guatemala, led by H.E. Mr Jorge Luis Borrayo Reyes, President of the Presidential Coordinating Commission of Guatemala, delivers an introductory statement during the November 8th, 2017 UPR of Guatemala. Source: http://webtv.un.org/search/guatemala-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5639386301001/?term=&lan=english&cat=UPR%2028th&sort=date&page=3#

After the UN published the recommendations made during the November 8th UPR, I reviewed them to determine the success of our lobbying efforts. Of the 27 countries we contacted, seven of them made recommendations, five of which Guatemala accepted. Interestingly, the number of VAW-specific recommendations made to Guatemala remained fairly constant from 2012 (30 recommendations) to 2017 (31), but the makeup of the countries making the recommendations changed. In 2017, 77% of the VAW recommendations were made by countries that did not make a VAW recommendation in 2012. This shift suggests that a wider group of countries is taking note of the situation in Guatemala and willing to use their platform at the UN to advocate for women. It also suggests we should expand our lobbying efforts to target additional countries.

I was pleased to see the following recommendation from Spain, a country we targeted with our lobbying:

“Allocate sufficient resources to specialized courts and tribunals with jurisdiction over femicide and other forms of violence against women as well as move towards the full implementation of the Law against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence against Women.”

 

Guatemala photo 3 Spain gives rec
Mr. Emilio Pin, the representative to the UN Human Rights Council from Spain, delivers Spain’s recommendations to Guatemala during the November 8th UPR. Source: http://webtv.un.org/search/guatemala-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5639386301001/?term=&lan=english&cat=UPR%2028th&sort=date&page=3#

This recommendation indicates that Spain acknowledges steps Guatemala has taken (specialized tribunals, partial implementation of the Law against Femicide) and points out a key gap in the implementation of these efforts: lack of government resources.

It’s incredibly powerful to see this recommendation and other calls to action that grew out of The Advocates’ client testimonies.

Guatemala accepted 28 of the 31 VAW-specific recommendations and will have five years before its next review to work on implementing them. I hope, the country will continue to build on past work and use the recommendations made during this review to effect meaningful change.

By Laura Dahl, a 2017 graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in Global Studies and Neuroscience. She is a Fall 2017 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the second in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

death_penalty_countries_map
Map of the world based on countries’ death penalty status. Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/maps-and-graphics/countries-that-still-have-the-death-penalty/

Japan is one out of the fifty eight countries (including the United States) where the death penalty is still legal and actively carried out. In Japan, crimes punishable by execution include murder, terrorism, arson, and treason. Based on reports from the Japan Innocence & Death Penalty Information Center, 106 people have been executed since 1993, and as of November 2017, 126 people are currently on death row.

Hanging is the main method of execution in Japan, and is carried out in an isolated penal institution. The Japanese Government severely restricts people on death row from having contact with the outside world. Within the detention center, the communication of people on death row is strictly limited; only lawyers and close relatives are allowed to visit death row inmates. Furthermore, people sentenced to death are informed of their impending execution only on the morning of the execution. The Japanese government insists that such last-minute notification inflicts less psychological pain on people sentenced to death.

After learning of the death penalty policies and practices in Japan, we wanted to see how advocacy against the death penalty from various sources (civil society, states, stakeholders, etc.) could make a tangible impact. These issues regarding Japan’s death penalty and prison conditions have prompted criticism from domestic and international human rights organizations. A systematic mechanism for the organizations to raise these concerns is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.

The Universal Periodic Review: What is it?

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Japan’s Review during the 28th Session of the Universal Periodic Review, 14 November 2017 Source:http://webtv.un.org/search/japan-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5644308605001/?term=japan&lan=english&cat=Human%20Rights%20Council&sort=date

Every four and a half years, countries are required to undergo a Universal Periodic Review by the Human Rights Council. All UN member states – 193 countries in total – are required to participate in the UPR process, whereby they are subjected to review by the United Nations and are given the opportunity to report their progress on human rights issues and to receive and respond to recommendations from other countries.

The UPR process is structured in a way that allows for feedback from the state under review, as well as from on-the-ground non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) can submit stakeholder reports with firsthand accounts of the government’s failure to respect human rights. These stakeholder reports ensure that the Human Rights Council gets an accurate, well-rounded picture of the human rights situation in the state under review before the UPR’s “interactive dialogue.”

The Advocates’ UPR lobbying pays off

The Advocates for Human Rights works with other stakeholders to research and submit reports for consideration in the UPR process. Once the reports are submitted, The Advocates continues its efforts by contacting delegations of other UN member countries and lobbying them to make recommendations to the country under review. This lobbying can be done in person or via email. Oftentimes, these recommendations pertain to a single issue. The Advocates’ lobbying process for the November 2017 UPR of Japan provides a window into this type of UPR advocacy.

In preparation for the 28th Session of the Universal Periodic Review, The Advocates submitted a stakeholder report in conjunction with The Center for Prisoners’ Rights in Japan and The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. (Readers can access the full report on The Advocates’ website.) After submitting the stakeholder report, The Advocates reached out to several country representatives to raise its concerns on the issue of the death penalty in Japan.

The Advocates sent emails lobbying against the death penalty in Japan to 26 countries. Of the 26 countries contacted, 21 countries made recommendations at Japan’s UPR dialogue (the other five were not present at Japan’s UPR). Twenty of these countries made recommendations in line with The Advocates’ lobbying. These recommendation included the following:

  • Immediately impose an official moratorium on the use of the death penalty (Australia, Belgium, Finland, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland)
  • Ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which aims at abolishing the death penalty (Argentina, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, Uruguay)
  • Amend the Act on Penal Detention Facilities and Treatment of Inmates to ensure detention conditions meet international standards (Netherlands)
  • Open up a public debate and take concrete steps toward ending the death penalty (Belgium, France, Mexico, Norway, Rwanda, UK)

Beyond these twenty states, other representatives also made recommendations about the death penalty, echoing one or more of The Advocates’ recommendations. In total, 42 out of the 105 country representatives – a whopping 40% – participating in Japan’s UPR addressed the death penalty, demonstrating the strong international pressure for change in the country’s legal system. 

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Country representatives of those who strongly recommended an end to the death penalty in Japan. Top row (from left to right): Mr. Suresh Adhikari, Nepal; Mr. Charles Kent, UK; and Ms. Laura Aubry, Switzerland. Middle row: Ms. Katarina Andric, Croatia; Mr. Curtis Peters, Canada; and Ms. Herborg F. Alvsaaker, Norway. Bottom row: Ms. Veronika Bard, Sweden; Ms. Lone Thorup, Denmark; and Ms. Monique T.G. Van Daalen, the Netherlands. Source:http://webtv.un.org/search/japan-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5644308605001/?term=japan&lan=english&cat=Human%20Rights%20Council&sort=date

Japan’s Response

In a closing statement at the UPR session, Mr. Yoshifumi Okamura and other representatives from the Japanese Government responded to the recommendations offered by other UN member countries. The Japanese delegates asserted the use of the death penalty in Japan is “unavoidable” and an immediate moratorium on the death penalty would be “inhumane” to the prisoners currently on death row, because such an act would arouse their hopes for abolition of the death penalty. The delegation rejected recommendations to convert death sentences to life imprisonment, asserting that a life sentence is a “very harsh punishment” and expressing great concern that the “character of the inmate will be destroyed due to prolonged confinement.”

Perhaps the most puzzling response from the Japanese Government was on the issue of notifying death row inmates of their execution on the morning on the execution. Government representatives asserted that an “inmate’s mental and psychological stability could be undermined and pain could be inflicted upon [them] if [they] were to inform about execution before the day of the execution.” As The Advocates’ noted in its report, the daily stress of not knowing the date of an impending execution certainly does even more to undermine the inmate’s mental and psychological stability.

After viewing the entire UPR session, we see that Japan is making strides in many areas of its human rights practices and policies. But progress in some areas does not erase the injustice of the continued practice of the death penalty and poor detention conditions. At the adoption of the Universal Periodic Review Working Group report, Mr. Yoshifumi Okamura stated: “There is no end to the promotion and protection of human rights.” The death penalty violates the most fundamental human right: the right to one’s own life. We hope Japan and the fifty seven other countries that actively the death penalty soon realize that this right is fundamental and act accordingly.

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Mr. Yoshifumi Okamura (front row, second from the left), the Representative of the Government of Japan and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Human Rights. Source: http://webtv.un.org/search/japan-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5644308605001/?term=japan&lan=english&cat=Human%20Rights%20Council&sort=date

By Emma Lind and Xuemeng Yao.

Emma Lind is a 2017 graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota with degrees in International Human Rights and Psychology. She is a 2017 fall intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

Xuemeng Yao is a junior at Macalester College with a major in Sociology. She is a 2017 fall intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the first in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates’ work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diaspora ties are a lifeline for getting the word out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grilling at the UN: The Ethiopian Government responds

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

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

Accepted recommendations

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

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

Recommendations the government asserts are “already implemented”

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

Rejected recommendations

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

“Pending” recommendations

  • Australia: Implement fully its 1995 Constitution, including the freedoms of association, expression and assembly for independent political parties, ethnic and religious groups and non-government organizations.
  • Mexico: Monitor the implementation of the anti-terrorism law in order to identify any act of repression which affects freedom of association and expression and possible cases of arbitrary detention. In addition, develop activities necessary to eliminate any excesses by the authorities in its application and eliminate all obstacles to the development of non-governmental organizations, in particular, the financial procedures for those financed with resources from abroad, and promote the participation of civil society in the activities of the State.
  • United Kingdom: Take concrete steps to ensure the 2015 national elections are more representative and participative than those in 2010, especially around freedom of assembly and encouraging debate among political parties and invite the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to visit Ethiopia.
  • Botswana: Ensure the full independence and impartiality of the judiciary, in conformity with international standards.
  • Spain: Issue a permanent open invitation to the special procedures and adopt measures which guarantee the non-occurrence of cases of torture and ill-treatment in places of detention, and among them, establish an independent national preventive mechanism against torture.

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

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

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

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

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

More posts in this series:

Oromo Diaspora Mobilizes to Shine Spotlight on Student Protests in Ethiopia

Ethiopian Government Faces Grilling at UN

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

“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

DSC_7270
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