THE ETHIOPIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL
Washington, DC, July 1996.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) is often severely
condemned and vilified by the regime and its media. This is of
course to be expected from such a regime which wants the world,
especially the west to believe all is right in Ethiopia. But the
strange fact is that most western diplomats in Addis Abeba are
collaborating with the regime to vilify EHRCO. The Ambassadors of
Switzerland, of the United States of America and others have made
pronouncements to the effect that EHRCO is politically oriented.
In fact, the representatives of the diplomatic community in Addis
Abeba made up of Canada, Switzerland and Norway discussed the
matter with representatives of EHRCO twice. Their suggestion was
that EHRCO remove the democratic process and the rule of law,
from its three objectives and concentrate on individual human
rights. In the interest of accuracy it must be stated that the
Norwegian representative was not sure how the democratic process
could be removed from human rights without affecting the over-all
concern for human rights. Nevertheless, the Executive Committee
of EHRCO seriously and sincerely re-examined its objectives in
view of the suggestions of the diplomats. It decided to continue
with its original objectives.
The second proposal of the diplomats was that the chairperson of
EHRCO should be changed. This was a purely internal matter, and
the right of the members of EHRCO to decide on who their
chairperson should be. This suggestion naturally aroused the
indignation of many members. The chairperson was willing to
resign because he felt that the interests of EHRCO should not be
sacrificed as a result of his being unpopular with the regime and
its foreign supporters. He had more than once argued that it is
important to be firm on principles but not on personalities.
EHRCO has many individuals who could be effective chairpersons.
That issue, therefore, could be easily resolved by changing the
chairperson. But the feeling of most members of the Council was
that that action will be taken when the members decide and not by
being dictated by forces from outside.
It must also be stated that EHRCO's resolute action to return the
$10,000.00 to the Ambassador of Switzerland was not well received
by most diplomats. It was not accepted as an act of redeeming our
self-respect and dignity as a group and as a people but as an
arrogant act. It suggests the abyss of degradation into which we
are relegated. We are not even allowed to preserve a little of
our sense of decency and dignity.
I submit that EHRCO's stand on human rights is an accurate one.
In the following pages I will explain EHRCO's position as clearly
and as briefly as I can.
2. EHRCO'S POSITION ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN GENERAL
2.1. HUMANITY IS UNIVERSAL. Whether human beings are
distinguished by race, colour, religion, language or any other
cultural characteristic, they remain one and essentially the
same. Before they are anything else, all humans are human beings.
That is the simple but fundamental fact that EHRCO asserts. Human
beings share with all other animals the same basic needs for food
and shelter as well as the need for self-preservation. But in
addition, they have other common needs and aspirations. They have
fundamentally the same intellectual and spiritual needs to
explain their own existence and of the world they live in. The
intellectual and spiritual drives are the same although the forms
may vary with particular situations and circumstances. In a
fundamental sense, humanity's valuation of justice, freedom and
equality is universal. Humanity is also fundamentally the same in
its sense of the past and in its anticipation of and preparations
for the future.
Therefore, human rights as a concept expressing the concern of a
human being for another human being is also universal. This
concern of a human being for another human being transcends all
forms of barriers such as culture, religion, language,
nationality or even sovereignty. The Preamble of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights establishes that the
"recognition of the inherent dignity and equal and
inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the
foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world" and
that "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted
in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of
mankind..." It further states that the "advent of a
world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and
belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the
highest aspiration of the common people." the General
Assembly of the United Nations proclaims that the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights serves, "as a common standard of
achievement for all peoples and nations."
Sovereignty is a much abused term. Every fascist, racist and
repressive regime claims it as a private domain into which no
trespassers are allowed for anything other than serving the
installed tyranny. In fact sovereignty resides in the people and
not in the regimes or governments the people are supposed to
control in a democratic system. Those who usurp the power of the
people want to use sovereignty as a shield to protect themselves
from any ideas that will help liberate the people.
2.2. HUMAN BEINGS ARE CITIZENS OF DIFFERENT STATES. This is a
fact that is very much like bees inhabiting different hives. It
involves a different set of direct relationships. When the
Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares
that "Member States have pledged" to promote
"universal respect for and observance of human rights and
fundamental freedoms" it is at once confirming the
universality of humanity and the fact that it is made up of
citizens of different states. It is important to note that the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not merely asserting
that states respect human rights, but that they "have
pledged" to achieve "the promotion of universal respect
for human rights." This means, even though humanity is made
up of different citizens of different states, their concern for
each other's human rights stems from their common humanity and
from common aspirations as human beings.
The fact of universal humanity precedes the fact of variegated
citizenship. Whether it is race, colour, language, religion, or
culture in general, or citizenship----all are subject to change
or mutation. Humanity is the fundamental fact which is the origin
of our concern for each other wherever we live. It is no longer
possible to ignore the suffering, oppression and exploitation of
other peoples who happen to live in distant areas and under
tyrannical regimes. It is morally wrong as it is practically
disastrous. Driven by their imagined invincibility sooner or
later dictatorships outgrow their original boundaries and
overflow to other regions. They generate instability and conflict
which will touch us all.
It is in this context, in the context of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights and the spirit behind it, that EHRCO
has formulated its three objectives which I will discuss briefly.
3. EHRCO'S OBJECTIVES
3.1. THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS:
EHRCO promotes whenever and wherever possible the democratic
process which it envisages as the empowerment of the people,
freedom of expression and association, free and unhindered
development and active participation of political parties, a
government based on the will of the people and not on force and
violence. The Ethiopian people must be allowed to make the
transition from the traditional violent overthrow of dictatorial
regimes to an open and peaceful political combat. That is the why
EHRCO is opposed both to the violence of those who hold state
power and to all armed struggles initiated and contemplated.
EHRCO rejects violence both as a means of staying in power and as
a means of acquiring state power. Both means trample on the right
and freedom of the Ethiopian people to make a choice.
Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts:
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his
country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of
These are democratic rights which are also human rights. These
are the rights that most western diplomats in Addis Abeba in
collaboration with the regime want to deny us. Only the Swiss
Ambassador had the candour to tell us that we are still
"primitive' and not ready for these rights. Our rulers felt
complimented by the almost racist and degrading views expressed
by the Swiss Ambassador. His views which were insulting to the
Ethiopian people were given wide coverage on the Ethiopian media
totally controlled by the regime while EHRCO's views were as
always totally shut out. What is closed to Ethiopians is open to
the west and, therefore, all is well.
The American Ambassador, Mr. Hicks, too made tangential remarks
on EHRCO whose officials he has NEVER met. The following was his
pontification based on what was told to him by the high officials
of the regime when he gave an interview to the Amharic monthly,
It is necessary to establish and promote strong and
independent non-governmental institutions, including those who
monitor human rights violations properly. The ability of such an
organization to gain fame and respect is closely related to its
role of monitoring human rights violations successfully by
investigating the situation diligently and in depth without
partiality and with truthfulness. I believe, however, that the
Ethiopian Human Rights Council, by crossing the boundary
separating impartiality from political argumentation, is
weakening its own effectiveness. I am sorry for this. I cannot
comment on the leadership of EHRCO and on the blocking of its
account by the Bank. The first issue must be resolved by the
members of EHRCO, and the second is an issue between the Bank and
EHRCO, perhaps also an issue that must be resolved by the courts.
When the American Ambassador was talking about "strong and
independent non-governmental institutions," he had in mind
almost the opposite of what he stated, unless he meant strong in
financial terms. EHRCO is morally strong and completely
independent, and he should know that is the problem. As for the
"boundaries" of human rights he did not delineate it
for EHRCO, except to say that it crossed it. In part EHRCO's
response to him was the following:
His Excellency, the US Ambassador does not seem to understand
the difference between being partial to persons or groups and
being partial to principles. Shall we quote from Thomas
Jefferson, or George Mason, or from the famous American
Declaration of Independence to explain to His Excellency, Mr.
Hicks, about these principles? Or shall we quote from DuBois,
from Martin Luther King? We will settle by reminding him of the
Freedom Pledge of American children.
We had wrongly hoped that Mr. Hicks, as an Afro-American, would
have a natural tendency to discern oppression.
If EHRCO shows any kind of partiality to persons, or groups, or
organizations, the Ambassador would have done some service to his
moral and intellectual rectitude, and to EHRCO. Moreover, his
courage to slash EHRCO with empty hearsay is as remarkable as his
lack of it to condemn extrajudicial killings and torture.
Principles could easily be sacrificed for advancing one's career,
especially if one's government is so inclined.
Obviously, the State Department of the US Government, following
the views of its Ambassador, included a malicious hearsay in its
so-called human rights report for 1995. It stated twice that the
Ethiopian Human Rights Council is considered by the government
and by "many observers" to be a political organization.
Like its Ambassador who did not find it necessary to explain how
EHRCO crossed the boundary between human rights and politics, the
State Department, too, did not find it necessary to explain how
EHRCO is a political organization. Commitment to the principles
of freedom, justice, equality and all the ideals and procedures
of democracy is partiality. Don't the State Department and its
Ambassador know this?
How can EHRCO explain to such important and powerful governments
that Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is
clearly proclaiming the political rights of citizens. Democracy
is not the diktat of one armed party. Democracy is about
empowering the people; it is about institutionlized power
sharing. The mere fact that EHRCO deals with these political
rights does not and cannot make it political. If democracy is
outside human rights, then neither democracy nor human rights
have any meaning. The problem seems to be not with the concepts
of democracy and human rights, but with the apparent reluctance
to accept our humanity. In another context I had said the
...how is it that Westerners who are apparently so much
interested in providing us with massive relief assistance, that
is to say, meeting our food needs, do not seem to see at all our
other needs? Or shall I put Paul Tillich's question in his
Courage To Be: "Have not the means swallowed the
ends, and does not the unrestricted production of means indicate
the absence of ends?" In answer to my question
some will probably say that Westerners do not conceive Ethiopians
as human beings. Others may say that there is more profit in
dealing with food needs than with higher needs. We may reject
these notions on whatever grounds. But how else are we to explain
the obvious concern of the West for the animal needs of
Ethiopians and their almost total indifference to, sometimes
verging on denial of, the higher human needs of Ethiopians.
As Len Doyal and Ian Gough put it autonomy is a basic need for
the individual. Autonomy is defined as the ability of the
individual to make significant choices, to have the freedom to
initiate action, and to have opportunities to do all of these.
"Those who are denied them have their freedom and their
autonomy artificially constrained and are unable to explore some
of their capacities as people... More than anything else, it is
this that makes tyranny so abhorrent." The problem is that
the west believes that this human need for autonomy is only a
peculiar characteristic of the western world. The rest of
humanity have only animal needs.
We are forced to come to the conclusion that either the west is
determined to keep Ethiopia and perhaps all of Africa under
oppressive and dictatorial regimes, provided they are friendly
enough to ensure their interests, or the west still has the
racist hangover when it comes to black people.
EHRCO's book, DEMOCRACY, RULE OF LAW AND HUMAN RIGHTS
IN ETHIOPIA: RHETORIC AND PRACTICE, was criticised by
some western embassies for raising some issues of policy. It is
puzzling for us why these ambassadors consider policies
sacrosanct; or why discussion of policies automatically makes a
person or an organization political. Hitler's policy to
exterminate Jews, South Africa's apartheid, and segregation in
many southern states in the US were policies vehemently opposed
by many individuals and groups. All these groups and individuals
were not politicians or political. Journalists who write on
policy issues every day, professors who discuss policy issues in
the classrooms every day are by no means politicians or
EHRCO made statements on regionlization, the constitution and the
land policy of EPRDF. These statements did not go into the
substance of the issues, but on the procedures. For instance, on
regionalization EHRCO's statement is that no one "can impose
a criterion for regionalization without the express will of the
people." Moreover, there is also clear discrimination
between language groups in allocating administrative hierarchy
the present regionalization.
The statements that EHRCO made and continues to make on the
constitution and the state ownership of land is that these have
not been based on the will of the people after all views have
been freely and fairly debated. These policies are the diktat of
the party in power and imposed on the Ethiopian people. EHRCO has
never made a statement on the substance of these policies. The
continuation of Derg's policy of state ownership of land by EPRDF
affects the lives of nearly all Ethiopians, especially the
peasants. It is not the right to property that EHRCO is concerned
about; it is the right to of the people to determine whether land
should be under private ownership or under state ownership. In a
peasant society to control land means to control the peasants.
The Ambassadors of Switzerland and of the United States would
like to instruct EHRCO that it is crossing the bounds of human
rights and venturing into politics when it raises the issues of
the will of the people.
3.2.THE RULE OF LAW
The promotion of the rule of law is one of the three
objectives of EHRCO. One would never believe that western
governments or at least their representatives in Addis Abeba
consider the question of the rule of law, like the democratic
process, outside the range of human rights. It is one of the
boundaries that EHRCO is accused of crossing into the realm of
politics. Yet the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights states categorically that "human rights should be
protected by the rule of law." Moreover, Articles 6 to 11
are all about the rule of law. As Atiyah observed, "Any
government which systematically permits the state's own laws to
be violated, and protects those guilty of the violations, clearly
has little respect for the Rule of Law."
Unless the west is sending a subtle message that Ethiopians are
not yet capable of enjoying the rule of law as well, it is
extremely difficult to see the basis of their objection. If there
is no rule of law, how is it possible to talk about human rights?
How is it possible to talk about human rights in a system that
defies court orders? How is it possible to talk about human
rights in a system that has no respect for the laws, the courts
or judges? How is it possible to talk about human rights in a
system that violates its own laws and the rights of the citizens
with impunity? As an outstanding British lawyer put it "the
basic requirements of a democratic system should be observed, if
a country claims to be subject to the rule of law."
Democracy and the rule of law are as inseparable as are human
rights and the rule of law. EHRCO's attempt to bring to the
attention of the regime and the public any signs of breakdown of
the rule of law is a positive contribution. It cannot be taken as
a politically motivated action. Irrespective of the motives of
EHRCO, the basic question should be: does EHRCO produce factually
inaccurate reports? If so, the rule of law and due process is the
answer; vilifying EHRCO does not.
3.3. HUMAN RIGHTS
The promotion of human rights is of course the central concern
of EHRCO. It must be pointed out, however, that EHRCO's problem
with the regime and its supporters is not related to EHRCO's
promotional function of human rights. That is rather innocuous.
The problem is with monitoring human rights violations. EHRCO
monitors and reports gross human rights violations such as
extrajudicial killing, torture, involuntary disappearances and
illegal detention. EHRCO never deals with rumours, speculations,
or second-hand sources of information in its reports. EHRCO's
reports deal with completely verified facts: names and addresses,
places and dates. In certain cases, for torture, for instance,
EHRCO has sufficient photographs of victims, including women and
children. Therefore, anyone interested in checking anything in
these reports has all the necessary information. If there were
such reports about some countries the US State Department would
feast on it in its so-called human rights reports. When it comes
to Ethiopia, as per instruction from the officials of the regime,
they completely ignore EHRCO's reports. More than once EHRCO has
invited Embassy officials to interview some victims of human
rights violations, and they have done so. But they never mention
In fact it seems the so-called human rights reports of the State
Department are written for themselves. The 1994 report, for
instance, flatly stated that there was no "officially
sanctioned extrajudicial killing" in Ethiopia in 1993. The
wording itself clearly shows that it is not a lie: it is a
deliberate attempt to misinform and to mislead themselves and
others and to encourage the perpetrators by covering up their
gross crimes. One would not want to believe that the State
Department authors of the so-called human rights did not consider
those victims of extrajudicial killing in 1993 as human beings.
The latest report of the State Department employs a different
tactic: it quotes profusely from the EPRDF's constitution as if
these provisions are operational and could prevent violations, or
even lead to an investigation. EHRCO recently reported the case
of an official who is accused of killing three persons, including
an old woman. He still sits in the so-called house of
representatives and is, ironically, a member of the legal
committee. Does it help the victims or the Ethiopian society to
quote from such an ineffectual constitution? We are treated like
small children. Well it is for us to demonstrate that we are
perfectly capable of thinking for ourselves and that we know what
democracy is about, what the rule of law is about and what human
Let us assert simple but irrefutable facts:
4.1. CIVIL OR POLITICAL RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS.
It is impossible to think of human rights without political
rights. A people that is not administered by officials that are
accountable to them cannot hope to have their human rights
respected. Political rights are, therefore, basic human rights.
To insist on this is not to have a political but a human agenda.
It is precisely because there are no genuine representatives of
the people and of the various interest groups that the freedom of
expression is so stifled, that the public media (radio,
television and public newspapers) are the monopoly of the party
in power, that independent journalists are continually harassed
and thrown in jail, that the freedom of association is on the
verge of disappearing as the paralysed condition of the Ethiopian
Teachers Association and of the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade
Unions clearly testifies. The many political parties that are
rendered ineffectual by constant intimidation and harassment are
other concrete manifestations of the dwindling freedom of
association. EHRCO remains unregistered as a civil organization
to this day and its bank account has been illegally blocked for
over a year. The problem of blocked accounts is true for the
Ethiopian Teachers Association as well as for the Confederation
of Ethiopian Trade Unions.
It is because the people have no representatives that
extrajudicial killing, torturing and maiming of innocent persons,
involuntary disappearances and illegal detention continue with
impunity. As indicated earlier even suspected criminals are
sitting in high offices. Our insistence on the democratic process
is a demand for the most fundamental right of the empowerment of
the Ethiopian people enshrined in Article 21 of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. Those who try to convince us
otherwise, or attempt to buy us with a promise of financial
assistance are certainly not friends of freedom and justice, nor
friends of Ethiopia. As I said some two years ago "we are
not morally poor as we are financially." We challenge them
and we are prepared to face them in a public debate anywhere. But
we know they will never come out public with their quaint
perception of human rights.
4.2. RULE OF LAW IS THE SUBSTRUCTURE OF HUMAN RIGHTS.
It is less than naive to believe that human rights can be
respected where there is no rule of law. For the last five years
the judicial system has been deteriorating at a very fast rate.
The best trained and qualified and the most experienced judges
were dismissed en mass and replaced by incompetent and
ill-equipped ones. The Prime Minister himself, forgetting that
the ultimate responsibility is his, castigated these judges in
the harshest possible language. Now, with the so-called reforms
the situation has deteriorated even further. In a condition where
judges are dismissed or transferred by the whims of high
officials, in a situation where judges can be arrested while
sitting on the bench and thrown in jail by the police who are
supposed to obey their order, what is the meaning of human
rights? As the Universal Declaration affirms "human rights
should be protected by the rule of law."
4.3. IT IS SOLELY THE RESPONSIBILITY OF ETHIOPIANS AS HUMAN
BEINGS AND AS CITIZENS TO RECLAIM THEIR RIGHTS.
We have learnt enough about the best ideals of the western
world. Those of us who were taught by Americans and Canadians
have imbibed the best in their culture. I remember reciting by
heart the full speech of Patrick Henry who concluded by saying,
"as for me give me liberty or give me death." We have
studied the beautiful documents of the Declaration of
Independence, the Rights of Man and the American Constitution. We
were never told, though, about Chief Justice Taney who in the
Dred Scott Decision in 1857, full seventy years after the
Constitution of the United States was put into effect, ruled that
when the Declaration of Independence states that "all men
are created equal" and when the constitution and the other
documents talk about man, they did not mean non-whites. Chief
Justice Taney rejected the equality of American citizens and
declared black people in the United States are neither citizens
nor members of the "sovereign people" of the United
States. In his own words:
...that they are not included, and were not intended to be
included, under the word "citizens" in the
constitution, and can, therefore, claim none of the rights and
privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to
citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that
time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings...
Even after we discovered such institutionalized bigotry, we
could not question whether the best ideals white Americans
cherished were also sincerely wished for us by them. We were
allowed to imbibe those ideals of freedom, justice, equality and
democracy so that we could admire them, not so that we could
Judge Taney said something else which is extremely instructive to
us Ethiopians at the present time when the United States of
America is so negatively involved in Ethiopia. He said that black
people "had no rights or privileges but such as those who
held the power and government might choose to grant them."
Is this not what we are being told today, that we should silently
enjoy only the rights and privileges that our rulers, with
American advice, will be good enough to provide? Neither the USA
nor Europe will help us be free before we free ourselves,
individually and collectively.
After all is said, America remains the land of freedom and
opportunity. The American people are perhaps the most humane and
the most generous in the world. There is something American that
we all value and seek to emulate and the opportunity to cherish.
It is something that I learnt in my student days in America and
something that has been reinforced during my visits. In fact some
thirty years ago I had written a poem in Amharic about the three
young men who were killed in Mississippi, but it was published
only in 1974. These three young men--- black, Jew and white---
who went to Mississippi to campaign for the registration of black
voters, represent the best in America while their murderes
represent the worst in America. In that poem I tried to express
my deepest feelings about America which I call "the High
Priestess of Democracy" and the mother of twins: Heaven and
Hell which could also be interpreted as truth and lies, or good
and evil. That is what I would call the American Spirit. One may
not love America. But one cannot hate America.
I understand the American Spirit as a total commitment to
freedom, justice, equality and the democratic ideals; it is a
Spirit of solid self-confidence to be one's own agent now, and to
be effective in shaping the future. The American Spirit
undoubtedly draws both the best and the worst in human beings.
Individual liberty is the American bedrock. But the American
Spirit is also a firm conviction that the best in man will
ultimately triumph and that, therefore, it is neither rational
nor practical to stifle the best with the worst in human beings.
That is the best thing we can learn from America. We must make
that Spirit our own. America, then will be forced to recognize
our humanity. The ball is in our court.