Stifling dissent in Ethiopia
One of my greatest bug-bears in life is when I'm out socially and am asked by someone I've just met, “So what is it you do for a living?”
Not that I don’t thoroughly enjoy what I do, but I just don’t like being asked that. For so many reasons which I won’t go into on this blog, but which I’d be happy to rant about over a glass of Malbec down the pub.
Anyway, on the odd occasion when I’m caught off guard and I mention that my work includes covering human rights issues affecting African countries, the response that normally follows is "Hmm, yes Ethiopia’s an interesting one isn’t it?" To which I usually concur before moving us swiftly off that topic onto non-work matters.
I do have to agree though that Ethiopia is indeed ‘an interesting one’. Politically for many years Ethiopia was held up as the African success. Stability, development and economic growth were the buzz words for Ethiopia on the international scene. The east African country has often been summarised as one showing great promise, as it is reported to have one of the fastest growing economies in the world (despite remaining one of the poorest countries), and for several years President Meles Zenawi was considered to be the ‘darling’ of the international community and was seen as Tony Blair’s right hand man at the time of the Commission for Africa.
But its recent history has also exposed some devastating human rights abuses, which many international statesmen and women struggle to excuse. Many remember how in 2006 the Ethiopian authorities were hauled across the international coals for the arrest of thousands of activists who were politically opposed to the government at the time of the elections.
A few months ago, the Ethiopian authorities were again in the news headlines after the arrest and imprisonment of two journalists from Sweden who had entered the country reportedly to work as legitimate journalists, and were instead accused by the government of ‘supporting terrorism’ and entering the country illegally. You can read more here. The pair are currently serving 11 years in prison.
And on the whole generally the human rights situation isn’t getting much better in Ethiopia. In fact, since 2009 and the introduction of the law entitled the Charities and Societies Proclamation, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to fight for human rights there. As Amnesty International’s new report published today reveals, previously legitimate funding has been cut from human rights organisations as the government has frozen some financial assets from international donors, many human rights defenders have lost their jobs and in general a level of fear has gripped the human rights community, who risk being thrown into prison if they dare to say anything out of turn in the country.
In 2008, before the law was passed, the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association provided free legal aid to over 17,000 women as well as in addition to other activities that tens of thousands of participants benefitted from. Four years on, and three years after the passage of the law, that association is barely functioning and has limited legal aid for women.
And despite the international furore of 2006 during the arrest of thousands of political activists, the Ethiopian authorities still appear to be clamping down and imprisoning men and women who exercise their basic right to freedom of expression by criticising the government. And this is all happening without reproach from the international community.
The 2009 Proclamation violates Ethiopia’s constitution and international human rights obligations.
Slowly but surely Ethiopian human rights defenders are being silenced. Unless the international community speaks out and condemns the authorities for this violation of international human rights obligations, then in a few years’ time Ethiopia may no longer have human rights defenders who are free to express their opinion… or openly talk about their profession.
I began this blog by stating that I’m often reluctant to discuss my job in social gatherings. But at least I have the choice. There are probably hundreds of men and women working in similar organisations in Ethiopia who dare not speak out publicly and boldly about what they do, for fear of suffering horrendous consequences.
Perhaps it’s time I start speaking up a bit more about what I do - for the sake of human rights defenders who can’t.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.