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Nobel Prize in Ethiopia must be a call to action

Reform must move forward, and it must move faster

By Dunia Tegegn, 2019 Almami Cyllah Fellow

On October 11, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali was bestowed this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and specifically for his pivotal initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea. The prize comes as Abiy’s reformist agenda faces increasing challenges in a country emerging from decades of autocratic rule and long-standing grievances are coming out in to the open.

The United States and other allies of Ethiopia need to support and consolidate more reform now before sectarian violence rips the country apart.

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Contain ethnic based conflict and make accountability a priority

Incidents of violence have resulted in the death of at least 86 people and have injured more than 200 in protests. Victims included both Muslims and Christians.

Over 30 churches have been destroyed since July 2018 mainly in eastern and southern Ethiopia with more than half of them burned to the ground. Over 60 people were arrested for trying to burn a mosque and a church in the city of Adama, Oromia region.

The violence has exacerbated and contributed to a humanitarian crisis of over three million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and is destroying livelihoods and property in places such as Dodola, Harar, Bale Robe and Adama.

Prime Minister Abiy’s administration repealed the nefarious 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation, however rights groups have grave concerns on aspects of the new draft bill and the implementing legislation. In the interim, there are reports of old habits continuing to be practiced with little to show of a meaningful commitment on the part of the administration to ensure freedom of association.

The Abiy administration has not fully started proceedings of persons accused of committing human rights violations, including torture. The inability or unwillingness to hold those individuals criminally responsible sets a bad precedent for the country’s justice system and is denying justice to the survivors. So far despite changes in structure and personnel, the Ethiopian judiciary has not fully held persons responsible for human rights violations, including torture, to account, perpetuating the culture of impunity.

Accelerate the revision of suppressive laws

Prime Minister Abiy must galvanize the Federal Attorney General’s office and its twelve Justice Reform Committee members to expedite the ongoing review of suppressive laws and repeal those laws that need to be discarded. Among the most critical laws would be:

The Anti- Terrorism proclamation of 2009

As it stands, the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation restricts freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and the right to fair trial. In addition to undermining civic space, the law will also have serious implications in the run up to Ethiopia’s 2020 parliamentary elections.

The exact number of people charged under this proclamation in the past is unknown. However, it is estimated that over 900 individuals were indicted under this proclamation from September 2011 to March 2017. Those prosecuted have included bloggers, journalists, editors, activists, musicians, and producers. In today’s Ethiopia this proclamation is being used towards persons who don’t pose genuine threats as opposed to those expressing mere dissent. The proclamation has been used to silence opposition, journalists, writers, teachers and political opponents. Any power to restrict rights must be in accordance with the requirement that any restriction should be provided by law and required conditions set under regional and international human rights instruments are satisfied.

The Computer Crime Proclamation of 2016

The Computer Crime Proclamation of 2016 complements other proclamations that limit internet freedom. It criminalizes genuine speech and defamation and gives intelligence and law enforcement agencies power to conduct surveillance and searches.

As the offline civic space shrunk in Ethiopia, those with access to the internet moved the discourse to the digital sphere to express their opinions. Forcing these platforms to police speech in compliance with the government litmus test for what is acceptable speech will continue to be detrimental to internet freedom in the country.

The Telecom Fraud Offense Proclamation

Enacted in 2012, the Telecom Fraud Offense Proclamation has been used to quash internet freedom in Ethiopia. Amendments to this law should delimit what national security entails in the telecom sector and describe what kind of telecom fraud poses a threat to national security.

The Freedom of Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation No 590/2008

The Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation of 2008 has been crucial in stifling the fledgling free press across the country. In addition, it has been used to withhold broadcasting licenses from independent media houses. Freedom of information is a central element of the right to freedom of expression. When citizens are ill-informed and unable to access basic information, it is difficult for them to fully realize their right to freedom of expression.

The United States and other allies of Ethiopia need to support the consolidation of Prime Minister Abiy’s announced reforms now, before sectarian violence rips the country apart.

Friends of the country must also prioritize capacity-building initiatives that can strengthen institutions mandated with protecting justice and human rights. This must include human rights training for the country’s security forces, for those that pass strict vetting.

Finally, it will be essential to facilitate an open and inclusive dialogue among youth where respect for human rights is a central theme.

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