Strengthening Human Rights the Ethiopian Way

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This article was originally published in The Ethiopian Messenger, the quarterly magazine of the Embassy of Ethiopia in Brussels.


While the progresses achieved in the last two decades by Ethiopia at the level of political stability and economic development have been widely aknowledged, the efforts to improve the human rights situation have not drawn enough attention despite a committed action plan.

Ethiopia is an immense and rich society facing political and human rights challenges. After the fall of the military dictatorship of the Derg, the Government has adopted a Constitution based among other principles on the human rights, ratified international conventions and established institutions to guarantee the respect of human rights, such as the Human Rights Commission and an Ombudsman. Though its human rights record has been steadily improving since the terrible era of the Derg’s regime, Ethiopia is still regularly criticized for the state of human rights in the country by international observers and organizations. One reason for this is that while Ethiopia’s booming economy and impressive development gains are now globally recognized, the country’s current efforts to ensure the human rights of its population are less publicized.

Acknowledging the fact that the Ethiopian democracy is still in its early stages, the government has made numerous efforts during the past decades, such as its National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP). Launched in 2013, Ethiopia’s NHRAP is an ambitious program aiming at ensuring and strengthening the state of human rights of its more than 90 million citizens. The goal is to have it fully implemented within three years. On many aspects, this plan is representative of the country’s strategic approach: learning on the job, monitoring progress and changing course if necessary and working hard in order to rectify any existing flaws.

Ethiopia’s Human Rights Action Plan

Ethiopia’s National Human Rights Action plan is the result of a long and organic process of various consultations. The concept of National Human Rights Action Plan was first developed as part of the second world conference on Human Rights held in Vienna, in 1993 which culminated in the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action. In Ethiopia, the preparation for the NHRAP began in earnest in the course of the National consultative workshop, which was held under the aegis of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, in cooperation with stakeholders in March 2010 in Addis Ababa. This national forum was attended by representatives of government institutions, civil society organizations and international agencies. The formal decision of the Ethiopian Government to develop the National Human Rights Action Plan was publicly announced the following year, on 1st September, 2011 by H.E. Hailemariam Desalegn, then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Presented in October 2013 in its final version, the National Human Rights Action Plan did not introduce any new laws for Ethiopia but instead analyzed what actions should be taken to make sure existing laws were effective in bringing benefit to the people. It included nearly 60 recommendations to cover gaps in sectors such as education, health and culture and identified gaps in the justice sector, like the need for guidelines on the use of force by the police, against suspects or condemned individuals in prisons among others. This plan – the first in the country’s history – was above all an indigenous intervention, product of a strong leadership based on the recommendations made by countries and international institutions on the last Universal Period Review (UPR) – a peer review platform at the United Nations level.

The main objective of the NHRAP is to develop a comprehensive and structured mechanism to advance the respect, protection and fulfillment of human and democratic rights guaranteed by the Ethiopian Constitution. The Action Plan reviews the present human rights situation of the country, identifies potential problems, and sets feasible solutions. The specific objectives of the Action Plan was to indicate the strategic guidelines to promote human and democratic rights in the country; set forth comprehensive, structured and sustainable strategies to respect and protect human rights in the coming years; define means to raise public awareness of human rights and indicate strategies on how the Government could work in collaboration with NGOs legally entitled to work on human and democratic rights, development partners, civil societies and other international stakeholders.

The plan is also a signal showing that the country is open for constructive dialogue as it has been used as a basis to discuss human rights issues with stakeholders such as the United Nations, civil societies and development partners over the past years. In addition, the NHRAP will help to mobilize the public and responsible authorities for improvement of the human rights situation in the nation. Although the implementation of the plan is a significant step in itself, the Government is well aware that the state of human rights in the nation could not be resolved by institutional arrangements only, and that a lot remains to be done in this regard. This is a work in progress, part of a broader, specific Ethiopian way coming from an endogenous perspective and a consistent political resolve.

A specific path

Upon assuming power in 1991, the EPRDF coalition embarked on the difficult task of restructuring the Ethiopian state. Its major challenges were ensuring the stability and security of the territory while achieving democratic government at home. Ethiopia has come a long way over the past 25 years: in addition to the 10% annual economic growth registered in the country for the past decade, the country’s pro-poor polices are transforming the nation and creating a path to prosperity and stability.

Due to its success, the country’s strategy has often been compared to the four Asian Dragons (South Korea, Taiwan Hong Kong and Singapore), which managed to reach exceptionally high growth rates and rapid industrialization from the 1960s to the 1990s while maintaining authoritarian political systems during their early years of development. This is partially true, since the very basis of the government’s ideology is to ensure the population’s well-being and its ambitious development policy and advocating for a development state agenda was the country’s priority during the first post-conflict years. Moreover, to this day the media tend to focus on the extraordinary economic development of the country, neglecting to report about the human rights efforts. In the late 1990s, the EPRDF methodically set out their goals and have been implementing them with great discipline ever since.

However, Ethiopia’s circumstances are very different from the Four dragon’s. Although Singapore is still a model for several developing countries, it has been decades since the world came to realize that respect of human rights is essential for sustainable economic growth and that a government lacking popular consent is built on shaky foundations. The Ethiopian government is acutely aware that economic development and human rights are intertwined, and that this challenge critically defines the future and the direction of the country. As the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi once said, “democracy is not just a choice, but a necessity”. While historic Asian developmental states had been authoritarian, such authoritarianism is no longer feasible in our interconnected world, and in Ethiopia’s ethnic and religious diverse society, democracy is a sine qua non, a matter of survival. Ethiopia’ strong commitment to democracy is essential for its survival and to keep the country united.

Increasing attention is being paid to the people’s well-being and opinions. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, for instance, recently published an independent inquiry on the protests and clashes which cost hundreds of lives in Oromia and Amhara regions last year. After consulting the victims and their families, officials, elders, religious leaders, representatives of the community, the investigation concluded that, despite a very professional behavior of security forces, some regional security forces had in some cases used excessive force, but also cited bad governance as the main cause for the violence. Lack of response for questions raised by the public, problems of land management, and rent seeking were also mentioned as reasons for the violence.

The Plan matters because it completes the country’s development agenda by decisively linking poverty reduction, wealth creation and development to issues of life, liberty, political rights, equality and equal opportunities for all. The NHRAP should therefore be seen as an “Ethiopia solution to an Ethiopian problem”, adapting universally shared human rights values and norms to the country’s specific context and creating a model distinct both from the Asian model and from a direct importation of the Western model.

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