Since nation-wide protests commenced in Ethiopia in late 2015 due to outrage over investment projects aimed at repurposing land for industrial use, government-sanctioned mass arrests, detentions, enforced disappearances, and indiscriminate killings have plagued the country.
This culminated in a State of Emergency declared by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on October 8, 2016. Media sources estimate that 24,000 people have been detained since the State of Emergency began; while more than 9,000 people were recently released, the fact remains that “silencing…voices is self-defeating and will lead to greater polarization.”
There are rampant reports of maltreatment of detainees, including denying them access to legal counsel or visits from family members. In addition, the rape of female protestors violates various international laws and treaties, including its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules). Ratified by Ethiopia in 1993, the ICCPR forbids “arbitrary arrest or detention,” and guarantees the “right of peaceful assembly,” without the fear of being subjected to “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.” The Mandela Rules lay out specific provisions for the humane treatment of prisoners. Beyond the prohibition of excessive force in disciplinary actions and the call for accommodation of basic needs, the Mandela Rules contain clear guidelines meant to protect the most vulnerable prisoners, especially women, from male security personnel. In Ethiopia’s State of Emergency, these guidelines are being fundamentally disregarded.
Ethiopia’s government praised the apprehension of roughly 1,200 people described as “ringleaders” or “suspects and bandits,” declaring that security forces successfully “restored peace nationwide.” In reality, the government’s six-month State of Emergency effectively “bans nearly all speech that the government disagrees with anywhere in the country,” in violation of international law, which only permits a suspension of rights proportionate to the “exigencies of the situation.” At its least destructive, the government crackdown has banned the use of social media to contact “outside forces,” or communicate with “anti-peace groups;” has forbidden organized demonstrations that are likely to “cause disturbances, violence, hatred, and distrust among the people;” and has banned the display of political gestures, such as crossing one’s arms above one’s head, the main symbol of the protests.
At its most damaging, the State of Emergency in Ethiopia resulted in hundreds of deaths, with thousands more imprisoned indefinitely or in “rehabilitation” programs – detention that often involves physical punishment. Iftu, a sixteen-year-old from Haraghe, reported to Human Rights Watch (HRW) how her father was shot and killed during a protest, that her two brothers were arrested days after his funeral, and how her mother and other siblings have gone missing after the military went door to door “arresting every young person they could find.” Most egregiously, the mass detentions have resulted in severe maltreatment towards female detainees, in sharp violation of the Mandela Rules. There are reports of women being raped or sexually assaulted while in detention at military camps. One twenty-two-year-old reported to HRW that she was held in solitary confinement in total darkness, that she was raped three times by unidentified men during her two weeks in detention, “two men involved each time.” Another woman reported being brought outside and beaten with whips, forced to remove her clothing and “parade in front of the officers while [being questioned].” The Mandela Rules provide that female detainees will be “attended and supervised only by women,” that male officers shall not enter women’s facilities unless accompanied by a female officer, and that “cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment” is completely forbidden.
There is a dire need for the international community to take a firmer stance towards the crackdown on Ethiopian civilians. It is not enough that the United States has “taken note” of the State of Emergency and is “troubled by the potential impact.” Leading international actors must push the government to abide by its obligations under the ICCPR. Transparent investigations led by independent officials must be initiated within the country to generate a more accurate portrayal of Ethiopia’s brutality. For now, Ethiopians are left with the Prime Minister’s promise to take “merciless action against any force bent on destabilizing the area,” a promise that appears to be fulfilled on a daily basis. Without real, consistent pressure, there is nothing to stop these killings and detentions from continuing in perpetuity, in violation of international law.