There was a time when a report by Ethiopia’s human rights commission was serious business, its findings offering a showcase for hand-wringing donors and legal cover for the government.
Between 2013 and 2017, the commission “systematically whitewashed human rights violations using compromised methodologies, dismissing credible allegations,” according to a 2019 Amnesty International report. study who accused him of “blatant prejudice against the victims.”
But no more. In May, the commission released the latest in a series of major investigations into human rights abuses in different parts of the country, focusing on detention conditions at the police stations in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region and home to its Nobel Prize-winning Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed.
The officials responded with two press conferences in which they denounced the commission for what they called “skewed and unbalanced”Statements, and threatened to obstruct his work in the future.
It was the last salvo against the new head of the commission, Daniel Bekele, who returned to Ethiopia in 2019 from New York, where he had worked for Amnesty and later headed the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Over the past two years, Daniel has strengthened the commission’s investigative capacity, enhanced its legal autonomy, and helped turn it into something of a proper watchdog.
It has won the support of international donors and, although significantly controversially – partnered with the main UN human rights body for a joint investigation into alleged atrocities and crimes against humanity in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region.
“The commission is increasingly perceived as a genuinely independent national human rights institution,” Daniel said, in an interview with The Guardian.
He points out a series of accomplishments since he took the reins. Formally, at least, the body has more independence from the ruling party in the way commissioners are selected, as well as in the hiring and firing of staff. Previously, almost all commissioners were members of the ruling party, but this is no longer the case. Daniel says that practical autonomy, seen, for example, in the commission’s freedom to make unannounced prison visits, has improved, helping to ensure greater access for political prisoners to lawyers and family members last year.
“The operational space for the commission to begin its work quite independently [has grown] in the sense that even with the limited capacity that we were able to build over the past year, we were able to conduct independent investigations, documentation and reports, some of which are very critical of government offices or security officials, ”he said. .
Perhaps most importantly, the commission published a statement on February 26, which endorsed the Amnesty findings about a massacre of civilians in the town of Axum in Tigray, which occurred shortly after the war between the Abiy government and the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), began in November. The statement confirmed the presence of Eritrean allied troops in Tigray – then still officially denied by Ethiopian authorities – and blamed them for the killings in the city.
The full report released in March sparked outrage among supporters of the Ethiopian and Eritrean government, who had long rejected any criticism of the conduct of their forces in Tigray. On May 10, a statement The attorney general’s office contradicted the commission’s findings by stating that those killed in Axum were actually TPLF combatants in work uniforms. (TO later statement admitted that at least 40 of the dead were in fact civilians).
“There are a good number of officials who have responded positively to our recommendations, but unfortunately some officials have been very dismissive,” said the commissioner. “It is always very difficult when you work in a very politically polarized environment: you cannot avoid the perception that you are paying attention to one situation rather than another. We are accused by all the different ethnic groups. “
Especially damaging has been the growing perception among Tigrayans, about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, that the commission is biased towards the federal government and hostile to the TPLF. Commissioner’s comments at the beginning of the war significantly minimized its humanitarian impact, but the perception is also due to his personal background: in 2005 Daniel was arrested and jailed for more than two years after denouncing the elections as rigged. At the time, the TPLF headed the federal government as part of a repressive multi-ethnic coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Critics say this has influenced his perspective on the war in Tigray, an accusation he rejects: “I personally know that nothing in my experience would affect my independence; if anything, it engages me more in human rights work and gives me a better idea of the nature of the human rights challenges in Ethiopia. “
However, a report The allegation that at least 600, mostly Amhara civilians, were killed in the city of Mai Kadra by a TPLF-aligned militia in November continues to haunt the commission. Critics point out that the report, released within days and adopted by the Ethiopian government, relied almost exclusively on testimony from Amhara witnesses in a place where both Amharan and Tigrayan residents had lived. Tigray refugees who fled to camps in Sudan told reporters and aid workers attacking the Tigrayans at the same time.
Daniel had expressed skepticism of such accounts, suggesting that some of the refugees may have been the perpetrators of the massacre and advising caution towards “some of the emerging narratives.” But, after the commission’s own interviews with the Tigrayans, he admits that the report [as] Unilateral”.
“It is true that there were also retaliatory attacks, but at that time we did not have enough information to document and report on that,” he said. “The problem in a polarized political environment is that different political actors tend to choose which of their reports they want to use to promote their political message.”
For now, however, these concerns are secondary. The joint UN investigation, which includes probing the events in Mai Kadra, among others, will be a litmus test for the commission’s independence, as well as the Ethiopian government’s commitment to full accountability. But the challenges are daunting: Many Tigrayans in Ethiopia and abroad have rejected commission participation.
“The Ethiopian government has repeatedly failed to hold perpetrators of abuse and violent crimes across the country to account,” said Laetitia Bader, HRW director for the Horn of Africa. “In Tigray, given the extensive evidence of heinous crimes committed by parties to the conflict, the complexity of the crimes that need to be investigated, and the importance of ensuring that investigations and their results are deemed credible, an impartial international investigation is key.”
On the contrary, the commissioner insists that local participation will aid the investigation and help obtain consent for an international investigation at a time of growing hostility in Ethiopia towards what is considered foreign meddling.
“I understand that people do not trust Ethiopian state institutions, because Ethiopian state institutions have a history of not being independent or impartial,” Daniel said. “But on the other hand, we have started a process of trying to build independent institutions and I think the Ethiopian human rights commission is one of them.
“It is right for an Ethiopian human rights institution to address a human rights violation in Ethiopia, in partnership with our friends and partners.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism