Addis Abeba – In the last four or five years, human rights violations in Ethiopia have significantly deteriorated with mass massacres, civilians being burned alive, and stoned to death, extrajudicial executions perpetrated both by security forces, armed groups and even civilians becoming frequent occurrences. The trend has put Ethiopia on a global; spotlight special attention to human rights issues in the country. Addis Standard’s Molla Mitiku interviewed Rakeb Melese, Deputy Chief Commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Rakeb had her first and second degrees in law and in human rights, respectively, and served for 25 years in different organizations working on democracy, rights of women and children. She talked on the independence, impartiality, and various complaints against EHRC, as well as human rights violations in Ethiopia.
Addis Standard: – Could you briefly explain the activities of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission?
Rakeb: – The Human Rights Commission is one of the institutions that have been earmarked for reform. For the past three years, one of the major tasks done was electing independent leadership or commissioners who are not members of any political party and have no political affiliation, [and] having leaders who are qualified in the field with ample working experience in human rights protection. Then, the new leadership identified the strengths and weakness and designed a strategic plan that could help to staff the commission, to reinforce previously existing strengths and put ways forward [to address] the problems. So, it has organized various independent sectors that could monitor the human rights violations on women, children, elderly and the disabled.
Many human rights violations are committed in conflicts in different parts of the country. The commission has been investigating these violations, and working for the victims to get solutions. Moreover, the commission has been giving the necessary recommendations to protect citizens and prevent the incidents from happening again. Having brought stakeholders around the table, discussions are being held in connection with the respect for human rights. Especially the northern parts of our country where the conflicts took place, recommendations were given in the joint investigation that was conducted with the collaboration of United Nations Human Rights Organization. In fact, we have still lots of work to do. Currently, peace agreement has been signed and the recommendations started to be implemented. At this level, many monitoring and capacity building activities are being undertaken in line with the recommendations. We will also make follow up efforts so that the rest recommendations will be implemented.
Addis Standard: – Has the investigation and the report that you mentioned the EHRC conducted with the collaboration of the United Nations been acceptance by the two sides?
Rakeb: – Not by the two parts. But most of the recommendations forwarded in the document should be carried out by the ruling government.
“…. the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean government who participated in the conflict did not accept the recommendations. We were pushing them to accept the proposal.“Rakeb
A lot of work should be done by the prosecutors like criminal investigations and prosecutions; following the report, we have monitored the government’s performance and some of the recommendations got attention. However, the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean government, which had roles in the conflict, did not accept the recommendations. We are pushing for the proposal to be accepted. Now that peace agreement has been signed and transitional justice is also included in the peace accord, we will proceed attempting to push them to accept the recommendations.
Addis Standard: – Is there anything you did to find out why your recommendation failed to get acceptance by all parties?
Rakeb: – As I said, getting an acceptance by the government in power is considered as a big positive process for us because it is the government that has to implement most of the recommendations. But one among their reasons is the question of independence. They considered the report not independently done and argued that the investigation should be done by another body. But now the implementation of the peace pact is undergoing, which was also one of the recommendations in that report. In this sense, the recommendation is being implemented and transitional justice is also incorporated in the agreement. Now, it is difficult to say that they are completely rejected to be implemented.
Addis Standard: – On the investigations you have already done, what are the major human rights violations in the country?
Rakeb: – The human rights violations that are being committed in the country are numerous, complex and multi-faceted. It is not easy to distinguish one from the other or to say one is huge [over the other]; but the human rights violations that are committed in relation to conflicts are so severe. Deaths of many people, physical maiming, property losses, infrastructure destruction, disruptions of the rights to education and health, service interruptions, movement restrictions, obliteration of communication infrastructure and many other human rights violations. In particular, the one that even make us to stand first worldwide is the internal displacement of people.
“…. there are many human rights violations against women and children in those (conflict) places. Sexual assault, which was widely discussed in relation to the conflict, was widely committed.“Rakeb
A large number of displaced people from their villages are being subjected to many human rights violations in places they are sheltered. In addition to their displacement, they have been subjected to prolonged problems without getting permanent solution. In addition, there are many human rights violations against women and children in those places. Sexual assault, which was widely discussed in relation to the conflict, was widely committed. Victims are being further harmed by not being able to access the services they need. As I told you, the number of disabled people has also increased due to the conflict. In fact, we do not exactly know the number of disabled people in the country, but now have additional disabled population and they are not receiving services to recover from the injuries they suffered. Likewise, the elderly have been subjected to many human rights violations, all these need to be improved.
Addis standard: – There are complaints on the lack of independence of the commission. Some argue that the commission is dependent on the government that it does not act independently and responsibly. What is your reaction?
Rakeb: – One of the possible actions for neutrality is having leaders who are not members of any party. In that regard, all the commissioners are free from political affiliations. It was also one of the criteria during the election. Secondly, the commissioners were elected based on their experience and education. They have experiences in the field of human rights as leadership. All of us at the leadership level have come through election so that our starting point and destination is only to protect human rights. In our investigations and reports one party may not be happy at a time while the other part enjoys it. We are not biased. If we are biased, it is to take the voice of the victims of human rights violations and make their voices heard by presenting documents showing they are [hurt], they have suffered; but we are not biased to anyone that our main work is the reality on the ground. We are doing our work based on the information on the ground and international assessment. That’s why when we issue a report, we don’t make a report as soon as we hear it. Our work is determined by the reality on the ground.
Addis Standard: But there are complaints that you report on some issues quickly, and delay others. Why does that happen?
Rakeb: – It is the situation on the ground that causes us to issue a report quickly and delay it. Most of the time, if it is in conflict areas, there will be a delay because we have to arrive at the place and conduct an investigation and issue the report. We don’t issue a report just because it’s posted on social media without properly investigating the situation on the ground. The biggest reason for the delay is that it will be difficult to reach the place immediately. The other factor is the issue of our institutional capacity. Currently, our total staff, including the supporting section, is around 360. It is difficult for us to investigate, verify and issue a report on human rights violations in all areas so that we delay the reports.
Addis Standard: Multiple reports show that Eritrean soldiers are committing human rights violations against civilians in the Tigray region after the peace agreement was signed. What did EHRC do in relation to this?
Rakeb: – We couldn’t verify that as we couldn’t be there, so I can’t say anything at the moment.
“We believe that a fair transitional justice process should be implemented in Ethiopia“Rakeb
Addis Standard: – Many argue that there should be an effective transitional justice in the process of implementing the peace agreement signed between federal government and Tigrayan. What do you think should be done in this regard?
Rakeb: Transitional justice is clearly stated as a recommendation in our investigation. We believe that a fair transitional justice process should be implemented in Ethiopia. It was recommended that a legal framework should be tailored and implemented at the national level and this idea is included in the peace agreement and the government is working on it. Transitional justice has four components. The first one is letting victims get compensation, the second is creating a situation where human rights violations are investigated and the perpetrators are punished according to the law. The third component is bringing out the truth, the cause for that situation and reaching an agreement by holding discussion with the victims and the party that started the conflict. The fourth one is of course the process of building the necessary policy [frameworks] to prevent such acts from happening again. So, this takes a lot of work and a lot of components that need to be handled and wrapped together as a comprehensive package. Based on this, there is a document issued by the government recently. It is being discussed on how it can be done, whether there is any experience in our country regarding the process of fair transition or to cascade from outside. In this regard, there is a lot of work to be done. There should be a comprehensive discussion with the community. By continuing the discussions on this document at the national level, there will be a condition under which the transitional justice should be carried out. And that document will serve as recommendation to the government to include these voices in a decision and when designing a policy or strategy.
Addis Standard: – What are the major challenges EHRC has faced in carrying out its work impartially and effectively?
Rakeb: The vision of the commission is to see respect for human rights as a culture. To do that, our society needs to know, understand, and apply human rights values. This is a big job. Ensuring human rights, teaching and providing capacity building so that the people and officials will be aware of their responsibilities and be able to implement them accordingly.
“…we call on both the executive body and the society to understand the responsibility and authority of the commission and accomplish recommendations as well as facilitate conditions when we need investigation“Rakeb
It is also necessary to teach all stakeholders that the responsibility of the commission is to ensure whether measures are taken to prevent human rights violations in police stations, prisons, and other areas where human rights are being violated [including] schools. One of the challenges we face in some places is that we are prohibited from visiting places and talking to certain people. In some cases, we are talking to the superiors to facilitate the situation, but it is still somewhat challenging. The other is in carrying out the recommendations we issue. In general, we call on or both the executive body and the society to understand the responsibility and authority of the commission and accomplish recommendations, as well as facilitate conditions when we need investigation. I call on the society and the executive body to contribute their parts in order to enable all of us to see a culture of respect for human rights in Ethiopia. AS