The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has had a vital role in scrutinizing and exposing human rights issues across Ethiopia. The commission which has offices in the federal and regional capitals is established by the constitution.
The Commission has gone through vigorous reforms such as having its new chief commissioner, amendment of its establishing proclamation, and inclusion of experts since the ascendance of PM Abiy Ahmed (Ph.D.). Ongoing armed conflicts and intercommunal violence have created a hostile atmosphere for the commission. Nonetheless, it has done good work in monitoring, investigating, and documenting allegations of human rights violations throughout the country.
On June 14, 2022, the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), and the Gambella Liberation Front (GLF) militants entered and attacked Gambella town. After hours of long clashes, regional and federal security forces retook control of the city.
The Commission inquired into an alleged human right violation and on Sep 28, 2022, confirmed that regional and federal security forces targeted and killed civilians during the incident.
The 13-page report by the Commission concludes that regional security forces extra-judicially killed 50 and injured 25 civilians who were suspected of ‘hiding firearms of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)’.
The report further indicated that there had been looting and destruction of properties by the Oromo Liberation Army ( OLA), Gambella Liberation Front (GLF), regional state’s special forces, local militias, and affiliate youth groups in the town and its vicinities.
It claimed that it had interviewed victims, their families, and eyewitnesses were interviewed in investigating the issue. Additionally, the commission held a discussion and interview with members of law enforcement agencies, and other public officials.
In response, the Gambella regional government, in a statement released on Oct 2, 2022, rejected and condemned the finding of the commission. The regional authority further stated that it was ‘exaggerated and didn’t take the ongoing situation into consideration and downplayed the report claiming that the interviewees/informants are OLA and TPLF supporters and suspected criminals.
They accused the commission and said that the report is ‘deliberately crafted to incite inter-ethnic clashes in the region.’
Four days after the statement by the regional government, on 6 October 2022, the commission issued a statement on harassment and intimidation of its staff in Gambella city. The chief commissioner of the EHRC also confirmed it in an interview with the Ethiopia Reporter.
It said that the act would negatively affect the protection of human rights in the region and requested the federal police to deploy its security guards to its regional office to stop further acts.
Prior to the 2018 legal and political reforms introduced by prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s leadership, human rights defenders, bloggers, civil society, and advocacy groups working on the advancement of rights and democracy have been working in extremely difficult conditions marked by intimidation, threat, harassment, and arbitrary arrest. repressive anti-terror and civil society legislations played a key role in silencing dissents. Despite the legal and institutional reform initiatives, these rights violations are still revolving in the human rights landscape of the country excavated by the ongoing armed conflicts and ethnic violence across the nation.
There were similar attacks on the institution and its employees back in 2018. The clash between Ethiopia’s Somali regional special forces and federal armed forces that leads to the destruction of the properties of the commission in Jigjiga city.
The commission has yet to issue an official statement about who is responsible for the recent harassment and intimidation of its staff in the Gambella Regional State. However, in a statement issued following the release of the commission’s investigative report, the regional state criticized the commission’s findings, calling them “exaggerated and irresponsible”.
If the country continues in this vicious circle of harassing, intimidating, and unwarranted pressure against human rights officers and human rights civil society organizations, the aspirations of human rights protection and peacebuilding efforts shall be in vain.
Anyone involved in such acts should stop such acts immediately. Parties involved in the harassment should be brought to court by prompt and concerned law enforcement bodies. In doing so, the Federal and Regional governments should collaborate as they have the constitutional responsibility and duty to respect and protect fundamental rights throughout the country.
The federal and regional governments should create a positive working environment for the right body and other nongovernmental organizations, as well as ensure that their human rights monitoring and investigation mandates are conducted in accordance with the law and international standards and practices.