The right to peaceful protest in Ethiopia
Solomon Tekle Abegaz 25th May 2014

Ethiopia is currently witnessing a wave of peaceful demonstrations from political parties, student groups and others. One such set of demonstrations took place between 25th and 29th April. Oromo students at Ambo University of the Oromia Regional State were opposing the “Integrated Master Plan of Addis Ababa” (a plan to expand the city to some parts of the Oromia Regional State).

The dark side of the story is the reaction towards this movement from the ruling party (EPRDF). More than 30 people have been killed during the protests, with several others wounded and incarcerated. It is unacceptable for life to be claimed in this way when people exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms. The demonstrations and the response from the government reveal the need to enforce domestic and international human rights norms applicable to Ethiopia.

Article 30(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) guarantees to ‘‘everyone the right to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peaceably and unarmed, and to petition’’. The only limitation is that the right cannot be used for purposes of defamation or violation of laws prohibiting any propaganda for war and any public expression of opinions intended to injure human dignity. Furthermore, Ethiopia is a state party to numerous global and regional human rights conventions that guarantee freedom of assembly and expression.

Regarding the accountability of law enforcement officials, the Human Rights Committee urged states to take all necessary measures to prevent any excessive use of force by the police; that rules and regulations governing the use of weapons by the police and security forces be in conformity with the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials; that any violations of these rules be systematically investigated in order to bring those found to have committed such acts before the courts; and that those found guilty be punished and the victims be compensated. On the other hand, article 74 of the Criminal Code of Ethiopia 2004 provides for a legal basis on which enforcement officials can be held liable for enforcement of superior orders when such orders constitute a crime ‘‘such as in cases of homicide, arson or any other grave crime against persons, or national security or property, essential public interests or international law’’.

In addition, there are judicial and quasi-judicial mechanisms to protect citizens from violation of human rights by enforcement officials. Article 37(1) of the FDRE Constitution guarantees to everyone ‘‘the right to bring a justiciable matter to, and to obtain a decision or judgment by, a court of law or any other competent body with judicial power’’. Furthermore, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission Establishment Proclamation No. 210/2000 imposes a duty on the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission ‘‘to undertake investigation, upon complaint or its own initiation, in respect of human rights violations’’.

Despite the protection of the right to peaceful demonstration and accountability mechanisms for violations, Ethiopian students, members of opposition groups, journalists, and others seeking to express their rights to freedom of assembly, expression, or association are frequently killed, mistreated or detained arbitrarily. Credible human rights activists and independent human rights reports (see here and here ) underscore that Ethiopian security forces used excessive force to disperse peaceful and unarmed demonstrators. This potentially constitutes a blatant violation of human rights laws and norms which the country is obliged to respect and protect.

A culture of tolerance of different opinions is necessary to prevent such violations of human rights. Security forces should use only non-lethal equipment, rather than firearms, during peaceful protests. The Ethiopian government should assume responsibility for the unlawful conduct of security officers. To strengthen accountability mechanisms, the country should review its legislation in the light of international standards on the use of force by enforcement officers, in particular, the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, 1990. It is important that prosecutions be initiated each time security forces kill peaceful demonstrators. Courts, in turn, must play their role in penalising those responsible and awarding damages to victims or their families.

Author profile

Solomon Tekle Abegaz [LLB (Addis Ababa), LLM (Addis Ababa)] is currently an LLD candidate in the Public Law Department at the University of Pretoria. His research interests are human rights and international law.

Citations

Solomon Tekle Abegaz, “The right to peaceful protest in Ethiopia”, (OxHRH Blog, DATE), <http://humanrights.dev3.oneltd.eu/?p=8173> [date of access]

Comments

  1. Danie Brand says:

    Thanks Solomon, interesting piece

  2. Paulos says:

    Dear Solomon, thank you for putting in the effort to write on a timely topic!

    While a I do agree with the other portions of your artice, am afraid the following recommendation of yours doesn’t take inof to account the political/legal environment in Ethiopia. You recommended, ” To strengthen accountability mechanisms, the country should review its legislation in the light of international standards on the use of force by enforcement officers, in particular, the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, 1990. It is important that prosecutions be initiated each time security forces kill peaceful demonstrators. Courts, in turn, must play their role in penalising those responsible and awarding damages to victims or their families.”

    The problem is not that the Executive or Courts in Ethiopia do not know their duties. The problem is mainly lack of political will and absence of democratic rule. As you are well aware, particularly as of post 2005 national election, EPRDF, the ruling party, is deliberately establishing autocratic rule and crushing oppostions by force & authoritarian tactictics. We have no independent judiciary either.

    Hence, I believe the solution is more political than legal.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  3. Dereje D says:

    This article is too short but to the point.The issues of peaceful protest is not a new practice in Ethiopia. Specially after May, 2005 Ethiopian Election, there were a lot of demonstrations and attempts by different section of the socity for different reasons. But the measures taken by the government or its security apparatus by themseves are violations of recognized fundamental rights.The security apparatuse is the right hand of the government.There is no independent judicary or justice system in the country. There is no separation of power among organs of the
    government.In all these conditions, the recommendation of the writer does not hold water. Because, the problem lies on the nature of the government. It is undemocratic, abusive and ignorant to the voice of its people.
    The recommendation about accountability can not be practical in the current Ethiopia despite the fact that the measures taken against protesters by security forces are the strategy of the government to cult similar protestes in the future. The legitmacy of the EPRDF government is not out of ballot that is why every peaceful protest is seen by the government as an attempt of change of government .

  4. Azubike says:

    This piece is from a heart of gold. In the face of present challenges you look out for your people. We hope for the best as we push towards a greater Africa of our dream.

  5. LeechesFilm says:

    Thank you for the interesting piece.

  6. Chris d'Orsi says:

    Thank you and see you soon, I think

  7. Pauline says:

    Through this interesting post, I understand that the problem seems less to be the law than independence and impartiality of the judiciary from narrow governmental control. Is it a principle written in the Ethiopian Constitution? Thank you for sharing Solomon. Please continue!

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