In defense of Ethiopia’s HR track record

YibekalGizaw is the head of the office of National Human Rights Action Plan at the Office of the Attorney-General. Yibekal has worked at the office of Attorney general, formerly the Ministry of Justice, for over seven years. Starting off as a prosecutor, he has held various positions in the (office) ministry until he was assigned to lead the national human rights action plan office. Yebekal studied law in college and holds LLM (master’s in law) in human rights field. Currently standing on the thres-bold of embarking up on the second five-year human rights action plan, the office that Yibekal leads has concluded what it has claimed to be an exhaustive evaluation of the first five-year action plan.Yibekal insists that the human rights track record of Ethiopia has been bad-mouthed for long while actual achievement on the ground had been quite impressive. Solomon Goshu of The Reporter sat down with Yibekal trying to make sense out of the wide range denouncement of Ethiopia’s commitment to ensuring human rights and the government’s claim of improvement. Excerpts:


The Reporter: As we know the first National Human Rights Action Plan was concluded last year and currently your office is in the process of preparing a second action plan. How do you explain the transition from the first and the second action plans?


YibekalGizaw: When you look at the first National Human Rights Action Plan, it was the first of its kind in Ethiopia and we had to review all of our human rights track record since the current government took power in 1991. We had to look into all the success and failures of human rights protection since the stated time. So, after that, we have managed to prepare the action and, as you know, we have been implementing that plan until end of the plan period. As can be expected, there are some notable successes and shortfalls in implanting the action plan; and we have to stop and take stock of all that in preparation for the second action plan.  So, the evaluation of the first action plan made thebasisfor the preparation of the second one. This in a nutshell is the transition from the two plans.


The ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front(EPRDF) has been criticized for its poor human rights track record for many years passed, including the implementation period of the first human right action plan. Hence, as you prepare to write the second action plan what were your assessments regarding the situation of human rights in Ethiopia?


I think we don’t even need to discuss the situation of human rights before the1991 transition into democracy since the regimes back then had no intention of respecting human rights. But, after 1991, the country has been undergoing a number of changes in terms of human rights which includes creating various institutional arrangements and legal frameworks which are conducive to human rights protection. Chief among the various legal frameworks was our constitutions itself. These were done to lay the groundwork for the better safeguarding of human rights. As far as I am concerned, I don’t think anybody can contest the fact that there have been some significant improvements in this regard. This being the case, we should also answer the question if Ethiopia is perfect in safeguarding human rights at moment. The answer is no. When we evaluate our human rights situation, one thing that has to be understood is the fact that safeguarding human and political rights by its nature is a never-ending endeavor.  It is a process that keeps on changing and improving.  So, let alone Ethiopia, even those mature democracies still have some gaps in safeguarding human rights. Hence, the question rather should be about the progress, that is how far we have come since those early days. Actually, we cannot ask if human rights have been fully safeguarded in any country.  According to our own assessment and the rest of world’s take on the situation of human rights in Ethiopia, we as a nation have come a long way.So, we believe that the work which was done since the Launching of the first action plan, the achievements during the implementation of the first action plan has both added value to the situation of human rights; and we believe the second plan will have added its own value in due time.


The first action plan has taken two years to prepare and was being implemented for three years. And one of the main focuses of this action plan was to get the institutional setup to respond favorably to human rights conditions and, overall, attain a human rights friendly environment. What was the assessment of first action plan in this regard? Is institutional resistance to human rights invulnerable?


I can say we have countered a significant resistance. Because from the very inception of the action plan, all the relevant institutions were part of the consultation and discussion process. So, I can say that the action plan was not only a reflection of commitment of the whole system, but it has also gained wide acceptance and sense of ownership from the side of the institutions.However, there were challenges in implementing the action plans mainly because the plan was the first of its kind in the country. This has little to do with accepting or being committed to the stipulations of the national action plan; rather it was mostly about capacity to implement. Furthermore, it was also good to ask how far we have traveled in creating awareness and sensitizing the executing institutions and the public.  However, we believe that the government has political commitment to safeguard human rights in Ethiopia; political commitment in my opinion is the most important factor here.


But the commitment you speak of and the improvements that have come in terms of civil and political rights are sentiments that are highly scrutinized by many group based both internally and externally. Since, your assessment assumes that all the relevant human rights track record in Ethiopia has been carefully assessed, how do you explain this huge discrepancy?


 Regarding the suspicions raised by foreign and local groups, one has to look carefully intothe basis on which these suspicions are based.On the other hand, we also have to look into how the government evaluates its own human rights track record. In my experience, I have had the opportunity to see a lot of places in the country and how safeguarding human rights have come a long way in the past few years. I can attest to the wide range of gains across the country. It is not only about the action plan, but in general the system is one that gives due attention to human rights and its safeguarding. Yes, we cannot say that it is satisfactory, but since we are building a culture, you see it improving every time. The ultimate goal of human rights safeguarding is creating a culture and this could not happen overnight. But, just like our economic progress, we are showing steady improvement in human rights as well. As far as I know this is how the government evaluates itself. I would say this is an objective evaluation since it offers a complete view of the human rights situation; it is improving but still has a lot accomplish. It is a balanced view. On the other hand, if see the claims of the so-called critical groups, it is obvious that they hold an extreme and unbalanced view of human rights situation in Ethiopia. Most of the time, such views emanate from political or other opinions not directly linked to the facts on the ground. On the other hand, most government documents attest to the fact that it has given due emphasis to all streams of rights including but not limited to civil and political rights.


But both rights groups and scholars point to a serious shortfall in civil and political rights in Ethiopia if not regressing in the past 25 years. More specifically, they underscore the situation with regard to the right to self-expression and the media; the situation of the political parties in Ethiopia and government’s resistance to public right to petition and demonstrate and many others in this regard. Although these groups concede to fact that other rights, economic and social right, have improved, they say civil and political rights were not able to tip the balance. What is your take on this?


In the first place, it is highly debatable that civil and political rights were able to tip the balance. I think, this depends on one’s political or other opinions and their willingness to view the situation objectively. As I have said before, we believe that the gains made in human rights in Ethiopia are quite balanced and comprehensive. Yet, we also argue that there are still a lot to be done; and a lot to be improved. If we see the right to self-expression and the states of the media, it is easy to observe that a lot has changed in this regard since the present government took power. I think your media institution is one which benefited from this freedom. However, what we have to note is the responsibility and accountability of the media institutions and how they understand this responsibility. Media freedom is not without bounds; it entails its own responsibility.  As the government strives to safeguard press freedom and the right to self-expression, it should also have to regulate that this freedom does not infringe on the rights of others. So, under the pretext of press freedom, if a journalist is found to be involved in terrorist activities and the government did not do anything to bring them to account, then the government is violating the human rights of others who are affected by the terrorist activities. As much as the government is accountable to safeguard the rights of certain protected groups it also bears responsibility to safeguard the rights of others from being infringed. By the way, this applies to all rights; the exercise of one right should not impede other rights.  So, it is all about which perspective one chooses to look at. If you look at the political spectrum, there are as many as 90 political parties in Ethiopia organized under ethnic or ideological lines. This shows you the existence of true multiparty system in Ethiopia. Yet again, the same logic applies here; under the  auspices of the right to organize, should governments stand by and look when individuals’ rights are trampled with in the form of endangering the sovereignty of the nation. I say it should not. So, when we talk about safeguarding rights we are talking of striking the right balance amongvarious rights and the right holders.So, when we look at these facts, we can clearly see that we have come a long way in both civil and political rights and other forms of human rights in Ethiopia.


Do you believe democratic institutions in Ethiopia have the caliber to confront the government regarding its human rights track record?


I believe we are referring to independent institutions such as the Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman. As to how far they are independent and are free from the interference of the executive body, I am not the right person to say. But, I can tell you from the story from the side of the executive, especially from the perspective of the human rights action plan office. In my opinion, what we should discuss first is what sort of relationship should be there between government and democratic institutions.Should it be the kind of relationship where one would act like the police while the other assumed to be a thief? Or should it be a partnership? I believe, the latter is more feasible for engagement. The executive body, the legislative or these independent institutions have the same goal since they are government institutions by their very nature. Whether we like it or not, the ultimate goal of all branches of government and other independent institutions is to safeguard the constitutional order. We are here to build and nurture a constitutional system in Ethiopia. Apart from that, I do accept the need to have a proper and functioning check-and-balance system in the country.I believe, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission is executing its responsibility as any human rights institution. I think the evidence to support this assertion is really clear. For instance, when we prepare our action plan, we took the Ethiopian human rights commission as a primary source as to what are the gaps in human rights safe guarding in Ethiopia. You can see their periodical reports regarding the Ethiopian prison system and the human right situations inEthiopian policestations. It shows some serious gaps.So clearly, they give credit when credit is due, and they criticize when there is a gap. Now, as far as I am concerned, this is what is expected of them, and not animosity.


But, if we even look at some of the recent unrests in the country, the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission and others, which were supposed to launch an immediate investigation into the conflict, did not release their investigative report until very recently, that is after four months since the unrest had happened. Do you think this ascertains their independence?


As far as I am concerned, the commission is conducting an investigation into the recent unrest in the country and will release it soon [the interview was conducted a day before the release of the commission’s report on unrest in Amhara and Oromia Regions]. However, I don’t understand how delay of the report can be construed as lack of independence of these institutions. Whenever there is an event that calls for the investigation regarding the human rights situation in Ethiopia, the commission is tasked to conduct an investigation and release the reports. Yes, the investigation is being conducted; I know that far. As to the reason of the delay, the commission is the one which is in a better position to answer. But personally speaking, I would guess there is a heavy logistical burden when conducting thesesorts of investigations since the geographical coverage of the conflict is quite massive. Nevertheless, the point I would like to make is that there is ample evidence that clearly shows the independence of these institutions. In fact, these institutions are not only objective in their assessment of the country’s human rights condition, but they also try to be part of the solutions when they uncover a major gap in safeguarding human rights.


On the first Human Rights Action Plan, you clearly quantified the targets that ought to be achieved and evaluated mechanisms for these targets. The draft of second action plan also follows the same phase. So, based on your own measurement mechanism, how far have you met the goals set in the first action plan?


Regarding actual changes on the ground, as I have said before, it is quite visible and clear for someone willing to see these changes. Yet again, what you have to know isthat most of these targets which are expected to be executed by various government institutions are part of the natural mandatewhich has been given to them by their establishment proclamation. These targets are naturally being met even before the commencement of the action plan. Hence, I can say that most of the targets set on the first action plan were met or nearly met. So, when you evaluate the human rights situation during the past three years, you can see some improvements. Of course,the journey to meet some of these goals is a never-ending journey. For instance, awareness raising work is something that will go on for ever. If you take advanced nations like the Scandinavian countries, which are considered to be more advanced economically and in human rights, they still afford a great deal of focus for public sensitization. On the other hand, there are quantifiable targets such as how many health posts or services are delivered to the public in the timeframe of action plan. Granted eachtarget have individualtimeframes, all the goals set in the action plan have to be accomplished within the five-year period.


In tune with the planning experience of the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), which is known to have intentionally overstretched targets, can we say that the Human Rights Action Plan is an overstretched plan especially, for implementing institutions?


As part of the drafting team, I can say that we don’t believe in restricting ourselves to planning.We believe we have to be bold and ambitious when planning, including when setting out action plan. This is because we are an emerging country and that we need to be ambitious in setting all of goals and targets. In our condition, overstretching makes sense since it is a five-year action and that we have taken into account the growth in implementation capacity of the institutions. The implementation capacity of our institutions is incremental and hence we have to match this incremental capacity with equally ambitious targets. Of course, an over-ambitious plan will at a point be impractical and that is not acceptable. So, there is always the question of keeping a fine balance. This balance is struck by strictly following planning guidelines which start by assessing what should be the major focus areas for human rights in the time period. First and for most, we look into the constitution. Next to that we review the major treaties and agreements and laws and regulations that the country has signed. Then we review the assessments of these treaties and agreements and take the concluding remarks. After taking these considerations we then move to see how extensive our plans should be. The magnitude of our plan mostly depends on the implementing institution’s capacity and their internal plans and strategies. So, what we usually do is we compile the first draft and send it to the implementing institution to comment on the document. We want them to reflect on the plan; whether we missed some aspects in terms of safeguarding human rights. On the other hand, we also expect them to give us feedback on the practicality of the action plan provided the capacity and plans of the implanting institutions themselves. So, what I can say about the upcoming action plan is that they have seen it and they have owned the plan.


When we speak of wide range of suspicion towards the government’s commitment to advance human rights matters in Ethiopia, we are speaking about the most educated part of local and international community. It is the scholars and elites that hold such views. So, what is the government doing to change this perception since you argue the suspicion is largely about perception?


I raised a point earlier that some groups perceive the human rights track record in Ethiopia negatively because of their opposing political views; it is because they refuse to look at the improvements objectively. Nevertheless, that said, I don’t believe the government has done enough to sell its human rights track record both to the international and local community.This becomes evident when we go to deliver periodic reports on our international treaties regarding human rights. Most of them tend to be surprised when we detail what we have done in the sector. What I am saying is that we have not yet sold our achievements; we need to advertise our positive aspects together with our negative ones. And in this regard we have a long way to go. Yes, there is still going to be groups that will refuse to accept these positive achievements. But as we keep quiet about the positive achievements, eventually the negative aspects will start to influence overall opinion. But, at present highlighting the positive aspect of the human rights track record is one part of the upcoming action plan.


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