Friday, November 19

Politburo Knows Best II - Human Rights

"The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse."
James Madison

This article from IRIN on November 4, 2004 reports that the "Ruling party agrees to electoral reforms".
The electoral law reform agreement was made by the EPRDF and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) a 14 strong-coalition of opposition groups. [This is a change - in the past participation in Ethiopian electoral politics was based on ethnicity and regionalism alone]In a symbolic meeting, the UEDF made the joint announcement alongside the minister. Relations between both sides have traditionally been hostile.

Merera Gudina, chairman of the UEDF, said the changes would help create a "level playing field" enabling free and fair elections in the country. "We are confident we can win once the playing field is level," he said.

Among changes that are expected to be passed into law are improving the conduct of party officials at election time.

Opposition parties had claimed their members faced intimidation. The EPRDF have also guaranteed ensuring ballot secrecy and plan to increase the number of representatives from seven to 11 on the election board.

The UEDF is also calling for greater access to state media and "freedom of mobility" to campaign. They claim officials have in the past prevented them from holding meetings. The two political parties have also agreed to set up joint committees to ensure democratic and fair elections, the joint statement said.

However, the two political parties could not agree on the make-up of the election board nor a change in the voting system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation. Opposition parties complain that in western Ethiopia, one MP represents 17,496 voters, while in eastern Ethiopia, one MP represents 99,761 registered voters.

Ethiopia’s opposition parties had been threatening to boycott without changes to the electoral law. Beyene Petros told the press conference that the coalition "reiterated its serious desire to participate" in both federal and regional elections.
The EPRDF, which ousted Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 after a 17-year guerrilla war, won 479 [out of 547] seats in the last national elections in 2000.
As we noted in the first post in the Politburo Knows Best series the government and the opposition are under extraordinary pressure to at least make these new elections look as good as possible. The government is expected by donor countries to tamp down its very worst electoral excesses while the opposition is on warning that it can't expect much more foreign help without its minimally symbolic participation.

Democratic Rights that anyone can recognize as such are inexorably tied to Human Rights. It is not simple coincidence that always places them in the same place. For that matter we usually find democracy and respect for human rights in the company of prosperity and respect for property rights. Chance plays little part in that combination as well.

Let us examine the Human Rights Record of the Ethiopian government to see if it can give the opposition or the reader any encouragement regarding the prospects for any form of conventionally understood democracy or national development.

Human Rights Watch has links to evidence and complaints of Police torture, firing on unarmed civilians as well as "extrajudicial killings*, arbitrary arrests, and widespread denials of freedom of opinion and association" of educators and students. The more detailed 'Overview of Human Rights Developments' by HRW is for 2003 is here. One section notes that
Provincial authorities, including local leaders of political parties allied with the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples' Democratic Front (EPRDF), are often implicated in physical assaults on supporters of registered opposition parties. In 2003, there were unconfirmed reports of such attacks in four regions. In one instance, the local police accompanied the attackers.
Amnesty International's 2003 report on Ethiopia has sections on the killings of demonstrators and mass arrests, detention without charge or trial, torture and extrajudicial executions*. A.I. representatives have been refused admission to Ethiopia since 1995.

The U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2003 details numerous instances of individual and general human rights violations. These include Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life, Disappearance*, Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile, Denial of Fair Public Trial, Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home or Correspondence, [restrictions of] Freedom of Speech and Press and [restrictions of] Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association.

* an extrajudicial execution in plain language means a killing without even a show trial or any admission of official involvement, in which the government is the main suspect. Disappearance means just what it sounds like - folks just up and disappear one day or night. Of course, both extrajudicial executions and disappearances seem to happen disproportionately to government opponents. An occasional tactic of authorities is the tragi-comic farce of aiding or of joining with concerned foreign agencies in the search for the victims.

According to IRIN the U.S. State Department notes that
More than 1,000 people were victims of “unlawful killings” in Ethiopia last year [2002] – many at the hands of the security forces, according to the US State Department.
“The security forces committed many unlawful killings, including some alleged political killings during the year,” added the report, which was released at the end of March.

It continued: “The number of unlawful killings during the year was estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500. There continued to be numerous unconfirmed reports of unlawful killings by government security forces from Oromiya and the Somali regions.”
Remember that this figure is probably a conservative estimate. The vast majority of the populace is far from foreign eyes. With regard to the political process, that is to say democracy, the State Department report also notes that
Opposition political parties reported that their supporters were the targets of frequent and systematic violence by ruling party supporters during the year, often after leaving meetings.
Opposition parties accused the NEB [National Election Board] of being an instrument of the ruling party and for failing to take meaningful action upon being informed of electoral irregularities, including ballot stuffing, vote count fraud, bribery, killings, beatings, and widespread intimidation and harassment by ruling party supporters during the 2001 and 2000 elections.
Ethiopian Human and Civil Rights Organizations face grave challenges from the government in pursuing their missions.
The State Department reports that the Government generally was distrustful and wary of domestic and international human rights groups.
the Government neither shared information about nor acknowledged the existence of human rights abuses with members of the domestic NGO community [domestic NGOs are further removed from control of foreign loans or grants].
The Ethiopian Human Rights Council established in 1991 releases regular reports against all odds that assess the general human rights situation and specific instances of violations. According to the State Department "The Government frequently discounted EHRCO's reports and labeled it a political organization." Critics of the government are always charged with having false pretenses and bad motives for their activities.

The Ethiopian Women's Lawyers Association's primary function is to represent women legally but has been the subject of complaints by HRW against the Ethiopian government which does not allow it to carry out its purpose. HRW says that " Ethiopia has a long-standing record of targeting human rights organizations and activists, often accusing them of being partisan".

The Human Rights League was formed among Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who like all Ethiopian peoples are totally disenfranchised. It has been subject to continual harrassment for alleged links to an armed Oromo liberation organization.

Despite constitutional legitimacy being predicated only on 'ethnic determination' [i.e. seperation] unto seccesssion for any cause including political parties based on ethnicity and 'ethnic federalism' as the basic organizing principle of government, those who don't 'play by the rules' of the government's pretense of ethnic self determination always pay a heavy price.

The Solidarity Committee for Ethiopian Political Prisoners releases press reports on many subjects including the names and details of 'disappearances' of opponents of the government. The Committee charges that
Attempts have been made to cover up the dismal human rights record of the Meles Zenawi regime by making reference to the records of the fallen Mengistu regime. While this "is it better to be devoured by a hyena or a tiger?' type of comparison has worn thin we must emphatically state that the EPRDF has been in power for the last seven years [now thirteen years] and has thus passed enough time to be judged on its own merit.

Its own record belies any attempt to present it as democratic, as a government that respects the rule of law and the rights of its people. it has rigged elections, set up a rubber stamp parliament (the only two independent MPs had to flee to the USA in 1997), and pays lip service to human rights while repressing the people systematically and ruthlessly. Multipartism has been turned into a joke with the ruling party cloning itself in various regions and under various names or by setting up satellite groups and then claiming pluralism does exist.
The International Press Institute (IPI) has a 2004 report on Freedom of the Press in Ethiopia. All of the above named Human and Civil Rights organizations also describe the restrictions placed on the Freedom of Press in Ethiopia. Noting the severe price paid by journalists for practicing their profession, the IPI goes on to say that
The private media also appear to be paying the price for the absence of a genuine parliamentary opposition in Ethiopia. While there are opponents of the present government in parliament, much of the power resides in the council of ministers.
this has led to the widespread perception in the government that the media represent the genuine opposition and are, therefore, to be treated accordingly. For this reason the private media are under constant pressure from government ministers who accuse them of exhibiting bias. These pressures could be alleviated if a genuine opposition were allowed to form, thus freeing the private media from its perceived position of opposition to the government.
On the Draft Press Law (DPL) that the government intends to use to reign in the independent press from 2004 the IPI is concerned with restrictive sections that obligate the press to work "for the prevalence of peace, democracy, justice and equality as well as for the acceleration of social and economic development". IPI says the press should, of course, report on what it deems fit without being given a mission that not so subtly demands subservience to the government.

The IPI concludes that
After reviewing the DPL, IPI is of the opinion that it represents a severe and unnecessary restriction on the right of journalists to practice their profession. Indeed, while the Ethiopian government is to be congratulated on its decision to create a freedom of information law and a partial right of confidentiality for journalists these advances are outweighed by the sheer number of poorly defined clauses penalizing the media, a plethora of burdensome administrative duties, needless registration and licensing obligations, harsh and punitive fines as well as imprisonment for purely superficial breaches of the DPL.

When reading the DPL the overall impression is that rather than attempting to encourage the free flow of information in Ethiopia, the present government has decided to do everything in its power to hinder this flow.

One of the most important issues is the way in which the Ethiopian government has tried to build a "firewall" around the country, essentially preventing comment, news and opinion from flowing freely into the country. Foreign publications may be banned by national and regional prosecutors for the flimsiest of reasons, while the domestic media appears to be prohibited from adapting or including the work of foreign news agencies. Elsewhere in the law, the statements of foreign organisations, including those from foreign embassies, are to be treated as mere advertising and once again kept separate from domestic news stories.

Moreover, the government is using other articles of the DPL to maintain tight control over the activities of the media. The law forces media organisations to give the authorities invasive and unnecessary details of their finances such as their earnings from advertising as well as details of foreign aid. Media organisations also have to provide individual copies of their publications, and the names of journalists who must also be registered and licensed. All of these duties impose a series of onerous duties on the media and they are evidence that rather than opening up the media environment in Ethiopia the government is intent on closing it.
Reporters Without Borders in its 2004 report notes imprisonment and physcial attacks on journalists as well as harassment and obstruction
Police harassed newspaper vendors on the streets of Addis Ababa in February 2003, detaining some of them and confiscating copies of newspapers.
The justice ministry suspended the activities of the Ethiopia Free Press Journalists' Association (EFJA) on 10 November for an indefinite period on the grounds that it had been operating for three years without renewing its licence. The ministry summoned four of its representatives on 8 December and warned them they no longer had the right to issue statements on behalf of the association and could be prosecuted if they did so.
As of September 30, 2004 ENN reports that "Ethiopian Ministry of Information to amend draft press law".
International media institutes proposed 12 points to amend the draft press law that is expected to be referred to the Council of Ministers shortly, the Amharic weekly Tobia reported on Thursday.

The draft press law, which is prepared by the Ministry of Information, led to discussions with different international media watchdogs and press freedom activists on Wednesday.
Ato Kifle Mulat, Chairman of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association, confirmed in an interview with Tobia that the ministry has accepted the 12 amended points, but said it should be announced to the public and journalists before it is ratified as law.
This is certainly hopeful news but it is hard to accept a new dawn of free press simply based on an announcement of new behavior when disrespect for human and press rights is the defining element of this electoral history.

This post Information De-Evolution - Big Brother features the limitation of information flow imposed by restrictions on internet access and the press. A meeting on the DPL was attended by The Reporter
According to observers who followed the meeting, what was more revolting than the restrictive and prohibitive content of the draft press law were the explanations of the Minister of Information himself who officiously told the participants that his government has the right to jam broadcasting, block the internet. ". . .Jamming is not illegal, China does block the internet," the Minister said. "What toppled the governments of eastern European countries were mainly the international broadcasters. We don't want that to be repeated in our country . . ." he added.
Such open government identification with dictatorial China's restrictive policies on information and even with the totalitarian states of Communist era Eastern Europe is not encouraging for those interested in the prospects for democracy in Ethiopia.

The reader should visit the human rights and free press organizations linked to above to find detailed accounts of individual suffering and the very purposeful policies and actions to blame. Then ask yourself ... is this the way democracies treat their people?

Oh yeah ... the human rights situation is better than it was under Mengistu Haile Mariam's Dergue (the frankly murderous military dictatorship of the previous government). But, so what? Fourteen years have passed taking along with them any associated excuses - the Ethiopian people deserve more right now.

One of the saddest aspects of this situation for Ethiopians to accept is that the limited consideration for the minimal rights that are allowed to exist are most secure within the hearing or eyesight of foreign donors i.e. ferenjis. Outside of Addis Ababa, some other large towns and a few polling places that may be visited every few years the status of human and democratic rights are likely to be far worse than all observers can imagine.

One must look with a healthy dose of suspicion at sudden compromises on the draft press law or agreements to treat parts of the opposition like human beings all of a sudden. To paraphrase Malcolm X - "when someone has buried a knife a foot deep in your back, how can they expect you to be grateful when they start to wiggle it out to nine inches". The ruling assumption in Ethiopia remains that the knife belongs there to begin with.

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