Ethiopia: A new Human Rights Action Plan as country plunges in opposite direction

Addis Abeba Dec. 09/2016 – When the government unveiled a draft of its second National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP II) before the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) in early November, lawmakers were told that the objective was to improve the human rights condition in the country. Chiefly, NHRAP II would develop a comprehensive and structured mechanism to advance the respect, protection, and fulfillment of human and democratic rights, which are explicitly guaranteed by the country’s constitution, according to the draft. Furthermore, the draft, which was then referred to the appropriate standing committee, would draw on “valuable lessons” from its predecessor that was implemented between 2013 and 2015.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, (EHRC), the government-sponsored  body designated with the mandate to oversee human rights in the country, has brought the draft for consultation with stakeholders on 29th November and while briefing the HPR, Yibekal Gizaw, head of the NHRAP II Secretariat at the Federal Attorney General’s office, said that among the objectives of the second action plan are objectives that show the importance of human rights for sustainable development within government entities, building public awareness about human rights issues and addressing the concerns of vulnerable groups. At the event, Addisu Gebregziabher, head of EHRC, expounded that NHRAP II would work to ensure the constitutionally-granted human and democratic rights of the people of Ethiopia.

The draft was tabled at the Parliament more than a month after the current six-months sweeping State of Emergency was declared following a yearlong protest particularly in Oromia and Amhara regional states that posed the ultimate challenge on the legitimacy of the government. The State of Emergency gives all the right and might for a special command post composed of the nation’s security apparatus to squash many human and civil rights that are otherwise guaranteed by the constitution.

But if its predecessor (implemented without the excesses of a state of emergency) wasn’t one deserving much accolade in reaching its target of promoting and safeguarding  citizens’ deserved human rights, it’s worth asking if the second edition (in a country under martial law) would be anything more than a lip service.

The impotence of NHRAP I

When the NHRAP I came into being in 2013 mainly aiming at coordinating the activities of relevant governmental and non-governmental organs so as to improve the implementation of human and democratic rights guaranteed in the Constitution, some loved to see it as a political commitment on the government’s side for the enforcement of human rights. The plan, specifically, intended to “indicate the strategic guidelines to promote human and democratic rights in the country,” set forth “comprehensive, structured and sustainable” means “to respect and protect” human rights, raise public awareness and designate “strategies on how the government could work in collaboration with NGOs legally allowed to work on human and democratic rights, development partners, civil societies and other international stakeholders.” It includes close to 60 recommendations to cover gaps in sectors such as education, health, and culture.

Unfortunately, an overall assessment of its implementation could easily reveal that a great deal of its promises never materialized; many of its objectives were not realized. “We need a lot of proclamations and also guidelines for the protection of the rights of the people, for the accused persons, for the persons in prison and so on,” Berhnau Hailu, the then Minister of the Ministry of Justice had said. “For example, we have mentioned in the document the importance of a guideline on the use of force by the police.” However, a legislation that was meant to govern the proportional use of force proclamation has never materialized. Some of the legislations that were supposed to be drafted and then passed in its time span were simply rolled over to its follower.

Worse than that, in the years when the action plan was expected to promote the human rights condition, things have taken a wrong turn. In various places throughout the country, protesters raising questions of equality, justice, and rights have been met with brutal repressions. Hundreds were killed and maimed in the last one year only; thousands were arbitrarily jailed; and the whereabouts of hundreds more remains unknown.

An inquiry committee into the earlier phases of the protests in Oromia and Amhara regions organized by the EHRC early last year released a report which to a large extent absolves the excesses of security apparatus by asserting that the force used by the police were “proportional.”

In short, NHRAP I was futile.

Different plans, same results

The declaration in October this year of the six-months State of Emergency, which shortly preceded NHRAP II, was followed by the arbitrary arrest of more than 11, 000 Ethiopians, including prominent politicians, journalists, bloggers and rights activists, making the document not worth the paper it is written on.  For Ethiopians, with or without the imposing state of emergency, which suspended most parts of the constitution especially parts dealing with rights issues, expecting anything different from the second edition will be an exercise in naiveté.

In theory, NHRAP II deals with civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, and rights of vulnerable groups. It even includes the right to clean environment and the right to development. Most importantly, it raises issues like the right to life, the right of the security of person and prohibition against inhuman treatment, rights of persons arrested, persons held in custody and convicted prisoners, the rights of persons accused, right of access to justice, right of thought, opinion and expression, and freedom of association among other rights. While these issues discussed in the draft of the action plan are music to the ears of many Ethiopians, as is sadly often the case in Ethiopia, they might just remain a pie in the sky. There are two compelling explanations for that.

First, the expected enforcement legislation might not come to see the light of the day (Just like the first phase) resulting in an absence when it comes to its practicality.

Second, even with a successful granting of a legislative shield, Ethiopians will probably still endure the suppression of their human rights by a security apparatus immensely powerful to be bound by the limitations of the law. Citing that the action plan encompasses 23 human and democratic rights, Yibekal of the NHRAP II Secretariat claims the document “shows the commitment of the government” to ensure the prevalence of human rights in the country.

However as many Ethiopians know it too well, these are words thrown around to please western allies, who will once again bankroll its so-called implementations.  When it comes to remaining faithful to its own words, the incumbent in Ethiopia isn’t one to be counted. AS

Photo caption: Police beating protesters during recent protests in Addis Abeba

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