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Human rights week observance and electronic mail conference

.....Key-Note Address........

"Human Rights in Post-Derg Ethiopia: Atrocities and Injustices"

Theodore M. Vestal, Professor of Political Science, Oklahoma State University,

This week is a propitious time for ISCEPC to sponsor the Human Rights Week Observance and Electronic Mail conference to review the human rights situation in Ethiopia. In Geneva, the annual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) is set to take place this month with a new Secretary General at the helm of the U.N. In Washington, the U.S. Department of State has released its 1966 Human Rights Report perhaps as a harbinger of increased significance of human rights in American foreign policy during President Clinton's newly inaugurated second term. Indeed, throughout the world, human rights groups are attempting to focus public opinion on making protection of people against violence and abuse a higher priority.

The New York Times reports that at the UNHCR meeting some African and Asian members are expected to demand that a unanimous agreement of all its fifty three members be reached for the Commission to be able to criticize any oppressive government. Why at least one African government would take such a stance may be explained by the abysmal status of human rights in Ethiopia. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) would certainly not welcome an articulate moral inquiry by "outside observers" from the UN or anywhere else into how it treats its own citizens. So far, it has succeeded to pull the wool over the eyes of many in the international community who try hard not to see what really is going on in the country.

Article 10 of the new constitution of Ethiopia, ratified on 8 December, 1994 proclaims: 1. Human Rights and freedoms are inviolable and inalienable. They are inherent in the dignity of human beings. 2. Human and democratic rights of Ethiopian citizens shall be respected. Article 13 explains that the fundamental rights and liberties included "shall be interpreted in conformity with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights treaties which Ethiopia has accepted or ratified. For Ethiopia which has been ruled by oppressive regimes throughout the twentieth century, the protection of human rights by the EPRDF promised a new era for civil rights and civil liberties. Unfortunately, many Ethiopians have learnt that listing human rights does not guarantee their protection.

This address spells out some of the dismal human rights abuses perpetrated by the government and the EPRDF. Once the EPRDF replaced the heavy-handed totalitarianism of Mengistu's regime which has snuffed out human rights and alienated the masses, and took power in 1991committing itself to abide by the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United States made it clear that it would have to implement democratic reforms to receive continuing American support. The EPRDF raised high expectations by committing itself to such democratic ideas as multi-party elections, a pluralist society with a free press, respect for human rights and the rule of law with equal status for all peoples of the country. Subsequent move in these directions made it seem that the winds of freedom were blowing across the highlands of Ethiopia.

However, this began to change in less than a year, giving cause for alarm to many friends of Ethiopia. It retrospect it can be seen that the EPRDF was putting in place its machinery to maintain power indefinitely while at the same time providing a facade of democracy and the protection of human rights sufficient to impress the U.S. and other donor nations with its worthiness of Ethiopia for development aid. The murky relationship of the EPRDF, and its front organizations with the TGE, made it possible to exert varying pressures, harassment, and even physical abuse of critics from governmental to "private" party sectors. Tightly organized cadres control institutions and mass organizations of public and collective life. The EPRDF had the means to harass and intimidate any opposition that challenged its dominance of institutions or organizations. This capacity was enhanced when the EPRDF army was proclaimed as the "state Defense Army for the Transition period," and the internal security was tightly monopolized by the party.

The EPRDF's methods of subjugation were demonstrated early in the transition period. A case in point is how it squelched the United Democratic Nationals (UDN) set up by the Oromo, Amhara, Tigreans and others who seriously took the rhetoric of the Transitional Charter only after a few days after it was issued. The ideals and core values of the UDN opposed the division of the nation along ethnic lines as prescribed by the Charter, opposed the TGE's acquiescence on the Eritrean referendum maintaining that "Eritreans were Ethiopians," required that the transitional charter be submitted to a vote of confidence, supported the creation of an independent judiciary, and advanced the idea of private property ownership. Each of these was anathema to the EPRDF. It asked to attend their subsequent popular meetings (which the UDN declined) and proceeded to ban their demonstrations until donor nations' embassies intervened. It tried to disrupt a UDN staged 250,000 strong demonstration on 24 November, and arrested three of their leaders the following day. On 23 January it charged the leaders with making seditious statements, two with spreading falsifications about government officials. It needed the urging of the U.S. embassy to bring a habeas corpus and relase them on bail. Subsequently the Secretary General of the party, Tsegaye Abiye, was widely bruited as an EPRDF infilterator; the UDN itself was brought under close government scrutiny and was forced to limit its activities. The government control of the media, and suppression of others' right to it, deprived the UDN the means to correct the allegations. Moreover, the TGE proclamation governing political parties requires political organizations to register their members, thus exposing their members to harassment, intimidation, or worse forms of coercion by the EPRDF. Many members were forced into exile, and the party could function only behind the scenes. It was finally prohibited from participating in the elections of June 1992. In sum, a potentially popular party standing for democracy and unity was rendered impotent by repeated harassment and intimidation of its members. Human rights and due process of the law simply do not exist for non-government approved opposition.

The same methods of subjugation were demonstrated again in the district and regional elections of 1992 when non-EPRDF political parties both inside and outside the TGE were denied freedom of speech, press, and association --the basics of free and fair elections. Parties such as OLF and AAPO which had fielded substantial number of candidates, were hounded out of the elections by EPRDF's intimidating tactics. In a textbook demonstration of "box within a box" tactic, in which party-controlled local organizations appoint executives, boards, commissions, and other bodies from social organizations dominated by the party, the EPRDF and its allies won 96.6% of the elections. Subsequent elections, to select the Constituent Assembly to ratify the new constitution in 1994, and to elect members of the legislature in 1995, followed the same pattern of no contest with the ruling party and its surrogates. This did not have any adverse effects on development grants from donor nations, and emboldened by that the EPRDF/TGE more brazenly went about controlling opponents and influencing the behavior of local organizations.

Stifling Dissent

In early 1993, student protestors at an anti-government demonstrations at the Addis Ababa University (AAU) were fired upon by the military and several were killed or wounded. Investigations of this episode served for the TGE's intrusion into the administration and faculty, and in a blatant violation of academic freedom, summarily dismiss the university president, two vice-presidents and thirty-nine other faculty and administrators. The government's squelching of highly regarded scholars accomplished its objective. Student and faculty will to resist was broken.

A Stiffled Press

Although the government's legislature, the Council of Representatives, had passed a Proclamation on Freedom of the Press on 21 October 1992, newspapers and magazines critical of the government were shut down and news distributors harassed into carrying only politically correct publications. Supposedly passed to guarantee a free press, the law was a set of restrictions on the media with criminal penalties for violations. Among these was "any criminal offense against the safety of the state" or of the administration or of the national defense force. In addition, with the EPRDF/TGE or its own non-independent courts determining the meaning of "criminal offense", "defamation or false accusation," journalists and publishers soon found that almost any criticism of the TGE or the EPRDF or its front organizations or their policies would be punished. The budding lively free press was castigated as "anti-government lobby," and the free market of ideas was replaced by the EPRDF company store that peddled the official line. By 1994 some twenty editors and journalists of privately owned newspapers had been arrested by the TGE, and a higher number of 31 was reported two years later by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. That was the second highest in the world and showed that the Ethiopian surpassed totalitarian regimes such as China and Syria in its willingness to throw journalists in jail.

Violations of Due Process

The government is holding 1,700 prisoners for their alleged crimes under the Derg. One thousand two hundred of these were charged with war crimes only five years later in December 1996, and only 46 of the former government officials have been brought to trial by the Special Prosecutor's office. The official number of other security detainees is unknown. EHRCO estimates that thousands of OLF activists have been detained since 1992 what that organization broke off its links with the government. Most infamous case of TGE persecution of a political opponent is the imprisonment of Dr. Asrat Woldeyes, the distinguished surgeon, and president of AAPO, an organization that was gaining popularity and was positioning itself to politically challenge the EPRDF in mid-1994. Dr. Asrat, called by some "Ethiopia's Mandela" fought against the ethnic fragmentation of his country and was arrested, according to Amnesty International "on the basis of slender and dubious evidence and without direct proof of the alleged conspiracy." The same can be said of all the spurious criminal cases brought against Asrat over the last three years since his arrest. Similarly, thousands of other prisoners of conscience from all walks of life --political activists, teachers, workers, and peasants-- have endured torture, imprisonment, and even worse punishment for opposing the EPRDF regime.

Fettering Freedom of Association

The ruling party has also targeted long established professional and trade associations for takeovers an enervating hostilities. Of these, the most openly attacked have been the Ethiopian Teachers' Association (ETA), the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU), and the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO).

The plight of the ETA is a typical case. The ETA protested when the TGE went about restructuring Ethiopian education along lines of ethnic federalism, with teachers' assignments correspondingly following ethnic or linguistic paths, rather than those of high quality instruction. The government dismissed or suspended thousands of teachers who refused to being transferred, detained others, killed some, and by fiat, denied the ETA a peaceful demonstration planned with CETU. Through non-transparent and unpublished rules and regulations it controlled freedom of assembly in schools and elsewhere. When the ETA refused to buckle this pressure, government security forces ransacked the association's Addis Ababa offices, placed them under EPRDF loyalists, and froze the associations welfare fund accounts. Armed security officers broke into and illegally searched the home of ETA president, Dr. Taye Wolde Semayat and arrested him on 30 March at the Addis Ababa Airport on his return from a business trip abroad. He was indicted only on 5 August, charged with violently overthrowing the government and planning and executing acts of terrorism. Using every weapon in its arsenal, notably the media in its control, the government had been vilifying Dr. Taye ever since.

The government has chosen unwisely in making examples of Dr. Asrat of AAPO and Dr. Taye, both of whom are well known outside of Ethiopia. Both men were faculty members of AAU and were among the forty-two academics summarily fired by the TGE in 1993. The proof against them would be unconvincing to foreigners and it is even more grievous for the government to assume that either would be so inept to get caught in the fabricated circumstance cited as "evidence" against them. The government has simply eroded its *bona fide* in the international community. Like other human rights, it has fetterd the freedom of association, .

Party Strategy for Suppressing Human Rights

The suppression of Human Rights has been planned by the EPRDF all along. The TPLF/EPRDF has outlined its long-term strategy in a sixty-eight page Amharic document published in June 1993. That rhetorically Marxist-Leninist document addresses the subject of Human Rights in the organization's first political goal: "Materializing the peoples' political and human rights." It alludes to the people as "the great majority of the population" also "the great oppressed majority," and to those in power as "the ruling class," or "oppressors."

Quite bluntly, the party program does not stand equally for the rights of both the people and the ruling classes. The democratic rights of the masses are listed and include a roster of human rights and due process protections. For the ruling classes, human rights are a sometime thing. If the rights of the mass clash with those of class, then the rights of the oppressors (anyone opposed to the EPRDF) will have to be oppressed and the rights of the oppressed (supporters of the EPRDF) will have to be respected. But this party line will have to be soft-pedaled because "such an approach will be unacceptable in the eyes of Western Democarcy and would invite the fierce opposition of imperialism." EPRDF leaders are wary of losing the good will of American imperialists, who could obstruct the realization of their goals --that is, they could cut off development aid. As a compromise, the rights of the masses could be ensured without suppressing the all the rights of the oppressors:

" When we say that all citizens' democratic rights will be respected in the future socio-political system, it doesn't mean that Revolutionary Democracy will stand equally for the rights of the masses and the ruling classes. Our support is always for the rights of the masses only. "

["TPLF/EPRDF Strategies for Establishing its Hegemony & Perpetuating its Rule" English translation of TPLF/EPRDF document published in June 1993, *Ethiopian Register* June 1996, pp. 20-29]

That support would be backed by a restructured and integrated force "to carry out the required revolutionary democratic tasks through indirect ties" to the EPRDF. Thus the new army would be free and neutral in appearance, but it really would be an arm of the EPRDF to "protect the constitution and the rights of the masses" (the party line and those who toe it).

Ethnic Justice

A corollary of the "rights of the masses" is a system of justice based not on universal principles but rather on ethnic or pary considerations. It probably has its roots in TPLF's war against the Mengistu regime, where the leaders developed a paranoid distrust of anyone who was neither a Tigrigna speaker nor a true believer of the party's cause. Under that system, issues of justice were based on ethnic or family considerations. Rather than abstract theories of what is just or unjust, the ethnicity of the offender or the victim became important. Conversely, any criminal offense that a Tigrean might commit against a non-Tigrean was not an injustice so long as the perpetrator was a member of the TPLF or a Tigrigna speaker.

This perverted sense of justice was transferred to a larger front and eventually to the ruling party when the TPLF expanded into the EPRDF. Under ethnic federalism, front organizations may practice ethnic or clan justice in their respective administrative regions. In a larger sense, however, justice now depends upon loyalty to the EPRDF. The party-affiliated can determine who are "the ruling classes" or "oppressors" and hammer away at them with impunity, as is the case of the notorious extralegal "justice" meted out by EPRDF leaders in the provinces.

Un-kept Promises

The record of the EPRDF/FDRE has made a mockery of the constitutional mandate of respect for inviolable and inalienable human rights and freedom. The lack of an independent judiciary, that leaves justice in the hands of the ruling party, and the system of justice based on ethnic or party considerations, make non-loyalist Ethiopians beyond the pale of the protection of human rights. By fomenting ethnic violence and perpetuating a political culture based on persecution of opponents, the government has abandoned its responsibility to protect its people.

Failing to coerce uniformity of sentiment, and provoking strife within the country, the Ethiopian government has been involved in extrajudicial killings, "disappearances," arbitrary arrest and detention without charges, and torture of critics. Credible reports of Amnesty International, Africa Watch, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, the International Commission of Jurists, and even the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Human Rights unequivocally attest to these actions.

Lessons from history tell of the ultimate futility of attempts to compel coherence of sentiment. The EPRDF should heed the warning of the sage American jurist, Justice Robert Jackson: "Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard." The rulers of Ethiopia still have promises to keep before anyone will take seriously their claims of being on the path of "democratization" and of valuing human rights.

The ISCEPC wishes to express sincere thanks to Professor Vestal for allowing us to abstract his 25 page, well referenced and documented article (36 notes included), for presentation here.