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Ethiopia: Text of UN Human Rights Committee Q & A session report

The Human Rights Committee has concluded its consideration of the initial report of Ethiopia on the measures undertaken by that country to implement the provisions of the International United Nations Human Rights Committee logoCovenant on Civil and Political Rights.

A high level delegation led by Fisseha Yimer, Special Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, attended the three meetings the Committee deliberated on Ethiopia. The delegation included members from several governmental departments and ministries including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Federal Prison Administration, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence, the Office for Government Communication Affair and the Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

Here is the full text of the summary of the meeting published by the Committee.

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Human Rights Committee considers report of Ethiopia

Human Rights Committee

12 July 2011

The Human Rights Committee has concluded its consideration of the initial report of Ethiopia on the measures undertaken by that country to implement the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Presenting the report, Fisseha Yimer, Special Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, said that Ethiopia had made a remarkable comeback from a repressive past where the State and its institutions were used by the Government of the day to perpetrate egregious human rights abuses and acts of torture on a massive scale. After coming to power in 1991, the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia ran one of Africa’s most extensive accountability and trial processes which brought to justice officials of the former military regime who were directly involved in genocide, crimes against humanity, torture and other serious crimes. The Ethiopian Federal Constitution, which came into effect in 1995, recognized almost all key human rights and freedoms recognized under the relevant international and regional human rights instruments and barred the application of a statute of limitations for crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The constitution importantly recognized the supremacy of international human rights instruments to which Ethiopia was a party as sources of interpretation of those provisions of the constitution which were relevant to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, Mr. Yimer said. All citizens, foreigners or refugees enjoyed constitutionally guaranteed rights without any form of discrimination and distinction. The constitution also stipulated a number of important provisions directly and indirectly relevant to the fulfilment of human rights and fundamental freedoms stipulated in the Covenant. It also had specific provisions dealing with women and children, providing them with protection from harmful traditional practices, customs and laws.

Over the course of three meetings, the Ethiopian delegation answered questions posed by Committee members relating to a number of issues, including anti-terrorism laws in the country and possible negative impacts they could have on the enjoyment of human rights; the application of the Covenant in the country by lawyers and judges and whether domestic legislation had been harmonized with the Covenant; and Shari’a courts and the application of Shari’a law in the country and whether these courts were required to respect the Covenant and its provisions.

Committee Experts expressed numerous concerns about the treatment of internally displaced persons, refugees and asylum seekers; the treatment of women and the criminalization of harmful traditional practices such as polygamy, early marriage, and female genital mutilation; and instances of torture, excessive use of force by police, abuse of power by security authorities and the investigation and prosecution of perpetrators as well as redress for victims. Committee members also asked what was being done to combat human trafficking and rehabilitate victims as well as the independence of the National Human Rights Commission, how it was funded and how its members were chosen.

The delegation from Ethiopia included members from several governmental departments and ministries including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Federal Prison Administration, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence, the Office for Government Communication Affair and the Permanent Mission of Ethiopia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The Committee will hold its next public session on Wednesday, 13 July at 3 p.m. when it will begin consideration of the third periodic report of Bulgaria (CCPR/C/BGR/3).

Report of Ethiopia

The initial report of Ethiopia (CCPR/C/ETH/1) notes that the Government has developed and implemented a project in collaboration with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, with the technical assistance of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Right (OHCHR) East Africa Regional Office aimed at the submission of all of Ethiopia’s overdue reports under the international human rights instruments. The Government has successfully finalized the project and submitted a Common Core Document and all overdue treaty-specific reports, including this report.

First of all, the rights of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples to speak, write and develop their own languages as well as to express, to develop, promote and preserve their culture and history are guaranteed on a constitutional level. In fact, these rights are considered to be the inherent rights of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia. Regardless of the administrative hierarchy of the territories inhabited by them, Nations, Nationalities and Peoples have a fundamental right to develop their respective cultures and preserve their history. If a Nation or Nationality believes that its identity is denied or promotion of its culture, language and history is not respected, it may submit its petition formally to the House of Federation for consideration and decision.

Despite the multifaceted and significant role women play in the society, they have not been enjoying the fruits of their contributions in the pas and lagged behind men due to political, economic, social and cultural bias. Women have quite often been considered inferior to men and were subjected to discrimination. In order to combat this deep-rooted mentality and practice, the then-Transitional Government of Ethiopia adopted a National Policy on Ethiopian Women in 1993. This was the first-ever policy document of its kind in the history of the country clearly demonstrating the intention of the Government to promote and protect the rights of women in the country.

From a legal perspective, inhumane and degrading treatment, including torture, was banned decades ago. Both the substantive and procedural laws prohibit the practice in the strongest terms possible and penalize acts constituting torture. Apart from proclaiming that international human rights instruments to which the country is a signatory are part and parcel of the law of the land, the Constitution unequivocally prohibit human rights instruments to which the country is a signatory are part and parcel of the law of the land, the Constitution unequivocally prohibit inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment under Article 18. A corollary of this general prohibition is the right to security of the person which accords everyone due protection against bodily harm. According to the constitutional provision, everyone has the right to protection against cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment. Although the Constitution does not explicitly use the term “torture” in its formulation, there could be no doubt that the practice is altogether banned within the extended meaning of the broad prohibition of “cruel or inhumane and degrading treatment or acts”.

Presentation of the Report

FISSEHA YIMER, Special Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, presenting the initial report of Ethiopia, began by saying that Ethiopia had been a State party to the Covenant since 1993. The Government deeply regretted that its initial report was long overdue. Mr. Yimer assured the Committee that this delay was not due to a lack of effort on the part of the Government, but due to limited capacity which was common in most developing countries. In presenting this report, the Government of Ethiopia believed it would go some way to meeting their reporting obligations under the Covenant.

Since the early 1990s Ethiopia had made major strides in the promotion and protection of human rights through the adoption of its federal constitution in 1995 and ratification of major international human rights instruments. Although Ethiopia became party to the Covenant in 1993 and numerous achievements had been registered since then in the fullest realization of the provisions of the Covenant, as noted the problem associated with capacity and financial constraints stood in the way of Ethiopia’s ability to present its report on time due under the Covenant.

To address this problem, the Government of Ethiopia had taken several positive steps, including promoting closer cooperation with relevant local and international institutions. One such key institution had been the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with which the Government of Ethiopia enjoyed a very effective and exemplary relationship. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights office for Eastern and the Horn of Africa based in Addis Ababa facilitated not only technical support on report preparation, but it also undertook a range of key activities which included strengthening the capacity of national human rights institutions, human rights education and awareness creation and training for law enforcement officers in prison administration. Beyond its relationship with Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Government also encouraged the participation of civil society.

Mr. Yimer went on to say that the country had made a remarkable comeback from a repressive past where the State and its institutions were used by the Government of the day to perpetrate egregious human rights abuses and acts of torture on a massive scale. After coming to power in 1991, the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia ran one of Africa’s extensive accountability and trial processes which brought to justice officials of the former military regime who were directly involved in genocide, crimes against humanity, torture and other serious crimes. The Ethiopian Federal Constitution, which came into effect in 1995, recognized almost all key human rights and freedoms recognized under the relevant international and regional human rights instruments and barred the application of a statute of limitations for crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The constitution importantly recognized the supremacy of international human rights instruments to which Ethiopia was a party as sources of interpretation of those provisions of the constitution which were relevant to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. All citizens, foreigners or refugees enjoyed constitutionally guaranteed rights without any form of discrimination and distinction. The Constitution also stipulated a number of important provisions directly and indirectly relevant to the fulfilment of human rights and fundamental freedoms stipulated in the Covenant. It also had specific provisions dealing with women and children, providing them with protection from harmful traditional practices, customs and laws.

A revised federal criminal code, adopted in 2004, had greatly improved the 1957 Criminal Code and ensured its compatibility with the provisions of the Covenant. One could mention specifically its comprehensive definition of the concept of torture and the criminalization of the commission of any act that could be considered cruel, degrading and inhuman including by law enforcement officials such as police and prison wardens. In addition to the revised criminal code, specific legislation and instruments had also been issued regulating the conduct of police, prosecutors, prison administrators and members of security establishments. Ethiopia’s criminal procedure code provided a detailed, fair and balanced procedure for investigating and prosecuting individuals suspected of being involved in torture. Regarding the death penalty, Mr. Yimer said that like many other States, Ethiopia retained the death penalty. However, in a manner that could be considered a de facto moratorium, actual implementation of the sentence of death rarely occurred. In a move that had been widely lauded, the Federal Criminal Code had criminalized inflicting bodily and psychological harm through harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.

Concerning prison conditions and administration, the country now had a system that facilitated visits by individuals and institutions. Prisoners enjoyed access to their family and friends, lawyers and religious counsellors. They were also provided with sufficient food, medication, sanitation and other services. This was provided for under the Federal Wardens Administration Council of Ministers regulations and the Treatment of Federal Prisoners Council of Ministers regulations. The protection of their dignity and freedom to practice their religion was full guaranteed.

With regard to terrorism, Mr. Yimer noted that the Government of Ethiopia had adopted a multipronged approach to tackling terrorism. Amon other steps it had adopted anti-terrorism legislation and anti-money laundering legislation that was consistent with the Covenant. Ethiopia, like other countries, faced grave challenges from terrorism. Several terrorist acts that were committed in different parts of the country had led to the loss of life and property. The Government would take all the necessary lawful measures to protect the safety of its citizens, while continuing to work with others in addressing the challenges of terrorism at the regional and global level. Mr. Yimer reiterated that Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism efforts were in compliance with international norms and standards. The arrest, detention and incarceration of those who were suspected and convicted of crimes of terrorism were conducted in a manner which respected the rights and dignity of the individuals concerned. The deportation and extradition of foreigners was also handled in accordance with the relevant national legislation of the country and extradition agreements between Ethiopia and other countries.

On education, Mr. Yimer said that Ethiopia had elaborated a comprehensive human rights education programme including an ambitious civic and ethical education programme. As acknowledged in the 2007 report of the Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Ethiopia had one of the most comprehensive and exemplary human rights education programmes. The civil and ethical education programme was an integral component of the education curricula starting from primary school to the tertiary level Now Ethiopia’s school children learned the core tenets component of the education curricula starting from primary school to the tertiary level. Now Ethiopia s school children learned the core tenets of human rights in school. With a current enrolment rate of over 90 per cent for primary schools, the impact of this programme could not be underestimated.

In conclusion, Mr. Yimer said that Ethiopia faced many challenges in its unrelenting efforts to the full realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Covenant. In meeting these challenges a lack of awareness, necessary skills and technology were significant hurdles. They believed they could meet these challenges with continued educational and capacity building efforts. Assistance, cooperation and understanding were indispensible for the success of their endeavours.

Questions by Committee Members

A Committee member applauded Ethiopia for the quality of its core document and said that there were few documents of that calibre before the Committee. The written responses to the list of issues were not as helpful and it might hinder their discussion today. There seemed to be some confusion among lawyers about the status of the Covenant on domestic law because the full text had not been published in the legal gazette. This had caused some confusion for the practitioners, such as lawyers and judges, responsible for applying the Covenant. When would the Covenant be published in its entirety in the gazette?

Some civil society organizations had expressed concern about the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, such that it was not very active and not critical of the Government and did not enjoy the confidence of civil society. What could be done to enhance the status and support of the Commission on the part of non-governmental organizations? What impeded the Commission from achieving “A” status by the accreditation body?

Were there any plans to amend the criminal code to criminalize marital rape, better define domestic violence and limit court discretion to reduce sentences for perpetrators of harmful traditional practices? Could the delegation provide more data on the prevalence of female genital mutilation as there were discrepancies in the numbers in the report given to the Committee and the report given to the Universal Periodic Review? The criminalization of same sex sexual activity raised serious issues under several articles of the Covenant, including articles dealing with privacy and non-discrimination. Ethiopia had not registered reservations to these articles. How could the State invoke public morals, social norms and customs in a manner that led to stigmatization, violence and disparities in medical care? Which government department was responsible for the care of internally displaced persons?

Regarding anti-terrorism laws, a Committee member said there were some problematic areas; for example, the law seemed to be very widely drawn and could lead to abuse. This fear was reinforced by reports that journalists were arrested for violating these laws in the course of their reporting. The Committee Expert also asked about refugees and asylum seekers and the rights they enjoyed, as well as the post-election violence seen in the country a few years ago.

What concrete steps had been taken to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Covenant to allow for individual communications? What efforts were being made to change social and cultural values to ensure gender equality? There was much more to be done to ensure that equal rights were available in practice as well as in law.

Another Committee member also expressed concern about detention under terrorism laws and gave the example of two Swedish journalists who had been held for 11 days under this legislation without being charged or brought before a judge.

Did the delegation have any examples of the direct application of the Covenant by judges in Ethiopia and if not, why not? Was it a question of capacity building?

The next speaker said he wanted to make it absolutely clear that polygamy undermined the dignity and worth of women and as a consequence it infringed article 3 of the Covenant. Female genital mutilation came under the same heading. Justifications of these practices based on social norms or cultural practices rang hollow. The State should not drag its feet as it had the responsibility to lead and not follow when it came to advancing social progress. Returning to the place of the Covenant in domestic law, the speaker asked to what international covenants and conventions took precedence over domestic law in Ethiopia?

The delegation was asked to provide more information on the competence and resources of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. When would the Covenant be translated into the national language and published in the national gazette?

Response by Delegation

The delegation began by saying that all international instruments, once ratified and published in the national gazette, became the law of the land and could be invoked and directly applied by the courts. Once an international instrument became law all domestic laws were subordinate to it, however these treaties did not supersede the constitution, which was the supreme law of the land.

Regarding equal access to men and women in terms of education, employment, land and credit, women had the same access as men. In addition, the goal was to increase the representation of women in public affairs and public administration to 30 per cent. Women made up at least half of the informal economy and they were trying to increase the number of women in the formal sector as well as decrease absenteeism among girls in schools. Land distribution systems gave priority to women, widows and orphaned children. Land registration required both spouses to strengthen the position of women in land disputes.

The Ministry of Justice had drafted a national action plan to combat violence against women and children and they expected this plan to be adopted soon. Public awareness-raising was aimed at reducing stereotypes and the eradication of harmful traditional practices. Local religious leaders were being encouraged to help protect the rights of women in economic, social and cultural life.

The delegation said that the Committee was correct that there was no one body to deal with internally displaced persons. In terms of sexual orientation and homosexuality, the delegation said that there was some difficulty in having discussions on this issue because it was a criminal act in Ethiopia and this currently was not being discussed in the country. The delegation did not know of anyone who had been prosecuted under this law and it had not been discussed publicly. What the State could do at this point was state the facts, which was that the law was unlikely to be changed at this point.

There had been discussions about publishing all the treaties that Ethiopia was party to in a national gazette and translating them all into the local languages. In terms of arrested people they had to be brought before a judge within 48 hours and the judge could order they be remanded to police custody while police investigated the alleged crime and this period could be for longer than 48 hours.

Turning to anti-terrorism legislation, the delegation said that it had gone through a rigorous process to ensure it complied with their international obligations and they had taken the best practices of other countries that had similar problems with terrorism. Responding to the question about the Swedish journalists that had been arrested after crossing the border, the delegation said this case was still ongoing. The journalists had appeared before a judge. The delegation said it did not understand why these journalists had infiltrated into Ethiopian territory with a terrorist group.

Concerning the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, the delegation said the Commission played a leading role in the preparation of reports the treaty bodies and other institutions, including the report being presented today. The Commission was working hard on the ground to protect human rights and the delegation rejected the allegations made against it.

Follow-Up Questions by Committee Members

A Committee Expert wanted to know what accusations were being made against the two held Swedish journalists. There was a rule that persons held had to appear before a court within 48 hours of their being arrested; could this period be prolonged, because for example of delay due to transportation. The Expert pointed out that the journalists had been held for 11 days before they appeared before a court.

In regard to internally displaced persons, the Committee wanted to know more about their situation, because the responses given by the delegation had been too fragmented.

Concerning homosexuality, the fact that homosexuals were not pursued by the law did not mean they were not discriminated against. There was a feeling that homosexuals preferred to hide. Could Ethiopia do something to protect these individuals, an Expert asked?

Regarding the independence of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, an Expert asked if the authorities planned any measures to guarantee the full independence of the Commission from the Government.

As for terrorism, its definition in Ethiopia was very vague and did not resemble what was in resolution 1373 of the Security Council or other human rights instruments or texts, an Expert noted.

In regard to polygamy, an Expert said it should be listed among traditional harmful practices, and asked if polygamy had been abrogated in certain regions, like in Tigray for example.

Comment by the Delegation

The Ethiopian delegation said it was ready to respond in a more detailed manner on the issue of polygamy. But concerning sexual orientation, it was not in a position to respond further to the questions raised by the Committee. There was no possibility of changing the law on this subject at present. However, Ethiopia did not question in any way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protected all persons.

Further Follow-Up Questions by Committee Members

A Committee member said it was unclear to him who determined if domestic laws were compatible with the provisions of the Covenant. Was this the decision of the judiciary, the legislature or the executive? The Expert was pleased that the Government was encouraging human rights education in secondary schools and law schools as well as training for lawyers and members of the judiciary. However, could the delegation tell the Committee whether there had been any cases in which the courts had annulled an executive decision or overturned a law because it was incompatible with the constitution, parts of which were derived from the Covenant?

Was Ethiopia considering a general gender equality law and what would the contents of such a law be?

Another Committee member wanted to ensure that certain provisions of the anti-terrorism law did not run counter to the provisions of international treaties to which Ethiopia was party. He was concerned about the impact of the terrorism law on the enjoyment of human rights.

Could the delegation provide details on the numbers of people prosecuted or kept in detention under anti-terrorism laws and the outcome of any such prosecutions? The speaker then turned to the question of Shari’a laws and asked for detailed accounts of the laws in relation to marriage, divorce, devolution of property, and the enjoyment of equal rights by spouses during and after marriage. Rights that were provided for in the Covenant could not be restricted or abridged, except in cases as outlined in the Covenant itself. In the next report, Ethiopia should outline cases in which women were forced to accept the Shari’a and cases in which they were not. People should not be obligated to accept lesser protection than was provided for in the Covenant.

The Committee member then said that it was important for Ethiopia and other countries to adopt the Optional Protocol because the Committee would benefit from their judges on how to give better protection to human rights under the Covenant.

Response by Delegation

Regarding the Terrorism Proclamation of Ethiopia and Committee concerns that the wording was too vague and broad, the delegation said that the language was far from vague and did not contradict any domestic laws or international instruments. The definition of terrorist acts used in the proclamation was directly drawn from other countries that had high standards of promotion and protection of human rights. It was also in line with Security Council resolutions and it was not designed to violate the human rights of individuals. It was designed to prevent and comb terrorism. They were a very vulnerable country located in the Horn of Africa and they had a duty to tackle terrorism and protect their citizens.

The law was not inconsistent with international instruments and regional African Union instruments.

Regarding fears that the definition of terrorism could be misapplied, the delegation said that like any other law the proper application of this law was guaranteed by an independent judiciary, a prosecutor’s office and law enforcement officers who were all duty bound to properly follow and implement the law.

Suspects were not allowed to be detained for more than 48 hours and the constitution explicitly outlined the right of detained people to petition the courts and the writ of habeas corpus. There were no provisions that allowed detained people to be detained for more than 48 hours without being seen by a judge. The laws also outlined the locations and conditions in which prisoners could be held. If they were remanded by a judge they had to be held in prisons or jails in conditions that respected human dignity.

Detailed laws outlined the applicability of Shari’a laws, which could only be applied by Shari’a courts. Cases were brought before these courts with the full consent of the parties, both women and men. Shari’a courts were not under the obligation to apply the Covenant and this right no to apply international instruments was guaranteed under the constitution.

Female genital mutilation had dropped significantly in the country and the prevalence of the practice had dropped from 74 per cent in 1997 to 37 per cent in 2009. The measures taken by the Government to target harmful traditional practices such as polygamy, early marriages and female genital mutilation included public awareness campaigns to change stereotypes and educate people. Polygamy was criminalized in Ethiopia; however the criminal code provided an exception for polygamy under religious or traditional law which was recognized by the constitution.

Turning to the participation of women in the political life of the country, the delegation said that measures had been taken to ensure that women could participate in the election process without harassment and Ethiopia was one of the first African countries to ratify the charter on governance which included the full participation of women in politics as part of its platform. They had seen a dramatic shift in the representation of women in politics.

The Constitution was the supreme law of the land and it incorporated the 1948 Human Rights Convention so that took precedence over all other laws; any law that contradicted this would be null and void.

The Ethiopian National Human Rights Commission was an independent body and it received its funding and budget from the House of Representatives and its members were elected by the House of Representatives as well. The Commissioners submitted a public report to the House of Representatives and they were free to criticize the Government and they had visited prisons and given a critical look to conditions there. The Commission was planning to request “A” accreditation and the delegation believed they deserved to be accredited.

On the question on the detention of two Swedish journalists in Ethiopia, the delegation said the journalists had been brought before the court and they had had consular access.

The delegation said it was not minimizing the situation of internally displaced persons, but the humanitarian aspect was handled by the disaster prevention section of the Ministry of Agriculture, while resettlement was handled by the responsible regional states. There were about 7,000 displaced persons in one area of the country due to conflict and efforts were being made to resettle these people. The nationality for refugee children was dictated by a law. A child of refugee parents would have the nationality of the parents and the country did not recognize dual nationalities, even for Ethiopian citizens who acquired other citizenship. However, they did ensure that children were not stateless and they would fill any gaps in terms of nationality to ensure that children had some nationality.

Regarding the gender equality law, the State had an extensive legal framework that ensured the enjoyment of equal rights for women and men. They had a family court, a family code that ensured gender equality and equal rights, laws in the civil code which provided for equal rights as well as the constitution, which was copied directly from this Covenant. Thus, they did not need a separate specific law for gender equality because it was provided for in the constitution and all subordinate laws.

Going back to the Swedish journalists who were detained, a member of the delegation said they should not have to discuss individual cases while they were presenting their report to the Committee. They did not come here prepared to handle individual cases that had happened five days ago and they were not prepared to go into further detail on this issue and there were other fora in which that case could be discussed.

In response to this, the member of the Committee who had raised the question said that this case was illustrative of the practical application of the laws in the country. If the law said that people had to be brought before a judge within 48 hours, then this case was illustrative that perhaps the law was not being applied as it should be and that was why the Committee member had asked for information. Also, what were the journalists charged with? If they were charged under the anti-terrorism laws, then this would also give some insight into how these laws were applied as well as the detention of suspects. These cases were being used to clarify how the law on arrest and detention applied in practice and this was an absolutely normal practice in this Committee.

The delegation said that it had provided all the information it could on this case at this time and had not come prepared to elaborate more on it. They would have needed advance notice in order to come prepared with this information.

The judiciary, legislative and executive branches of the government had equal responsibility for applying and enforcing the Covenant.

Certainly judges had even more of an opportunity to apply the provisions of the Covenant, but the delegation wanted to reiterate that it was the responsibility of all branches of government.

Questions by Committee Members

The second round of questions began with a Committee member saying that the International Committee of the Red Cross had been denied access to the Somali region of Ethiopia and they had also rejected the Universal Periodic Review recommendations on this point. Why had the State objected to the recommendation of conducting investigations into possible human rights violations in this area? What was happening in this region? Could the delegation also elaborate on reports of the targeting of civilians by the military in this region?

On human trafficking, what was the sentencing for perpetrators, how did the State collect reliable data on the crime, and were there any plans to adopt a comprehensive anti-trafficking law?

A Committee member asked about the death penalty and its application in the country. What were the procedural guarantees surrounding this penalty? Also, many of the sentences seemed to be based on political prosecutions, based on charges of conspiracy to overthrow or destabilize the government. Four of the people convicted had been sentenced in absentia. Was it possible to shift from a de facto moratorium on the death penalty to a de jure abolition of the practice?

Had any action been taken against security forces for the use of excessive or deadly force against civilians during periods of unrest in the aftermath of the elections? What measures had been taken to prevent and punish wrongful arrest, torture and ill-treatment? Could the delegation provide any statistics or examples of law enforcement or security forces being prosecuted for arbitrary arrest or detention, torture, or ill treatment? This would help the Committee understand how the law applied in practice in dealing with such issues.

A Committee member asked how minorities were addressed in the constitution. How were different languages taught in schools and how were ethnic minorities identified or recognized in the law. Were these groups marginalized?

Had the State party been able to implement the recommendations made by the Committee against Torture? This had direct bearing on the provisions of article 7 of the Covenant so it was important for them to know. Was it still the case that the International Committee of the Red Cross could not operate in some areas of the country? It was important because they did important humanitarian work that impacted the right to life as protected under the Covenant.

When people were tried in absentia, how were they represented and how was the judgement carried out? Which courts could sentence people to the death penalty? Did it include military courts and Shari’a courts and what procedures did they have to follow and was there the right of appeal? When was the last execution carried out in Ethiopia and for those sentenced to the death penalty where were they held while awaiting execution?

Response by Delegation

In response to these questions and others, the delegation said that the death penalty was implemented only if it was approved by the President of the country and a crime actually had to be realized, not just considered or contemplated. The death penalty was also only applied in the most serious crimes and as a last resort. The Criminal Code for Ethiopia outlined the criteria for imposing the death penalty and carrying out the sentence. Some of the most serious crimes included conspiring to overthrow the constitution, mutiny and desertion, or hampering the military and the prosecutor had to prove these allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. Defendants were brought before the court within 48 hours of being arrested and charged in a language they understood. There was a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, defendants were not compelled to testify against themselves, and they could examine all evidence against them.

The Somali region of Ethiopia could not be described as a conflict zone, although there was a terrorist group that engaged in insurgent activities there and it attacked civilian populations. The State had engaged with these groups, but the Ethiopian defence forces carried out their duties with the utmost respect of human rights in securing the peace and stability of the region, and reports that there were gross human rights violations were fabrications to mislead the international community and flew in the face of the facts. The insurgents were guilty of the very crimes they claimed the Government defence forces committed.

With regards to minorities, the State of Ethiopia believed that linguistic minorities had a right to self-determination and to govern themselves.

Ethiopia’s record of empowering minorities and giving them full expression to develop their political, economic and social aspirations was peerless.

Training in human rights and confidence building was indispensible in promoting and protecting human rights. In this regard, well trained police were extremely important.

Following the incidents after the 2005 Ethiopian general election, the Government took prompt action including investigations and prosecutions for alleged killings. An independent inquiry commission, chaired by the president of the Supreme Court, was appointed to look into the violence. The final report of the commission reached the conclusion that certain individuals had taken part in the killings. Significant moves had been made by the federal police to investigate the killings and this had resulted in prosecutions and sentencing of those responsible for the killings, including former police officers involved in the incidents. The regional head of the police force was arrested and convicted as result of the killings in the Gambela region.

The delegation said that the Government was engaged with the International Committee of the Red Cross at different levels about access to the Somali region so they did not want to go into details which would require them to divulge information about their discussions with the International Committee of the Red Cross which would not be appropriate at this time.

Questions by Committee Members

In a round of follow-up questions, a Committee member reiterated their interest in the treatment of detainees and the conditions of prisons.

Reading through the report, it would seem that prison conditions were idyllic, but this gave rise to the doubt that this might be the aspiration of the State party for the future and not the current situation.

Had the State party sought the extradition of a former Ethiopian general to bring him to justice for some of the appalling crimes he had committed? What measures had been taken to convince the host state to return him to Ethiopia? Did they incorporate the tests of necessity and proportionality when determining the level of force used by police officers and security forces? Was compensation paid to victims of excessive force or police abuse? When exactly did people have access to a lawyer? Was it as soon as they were arrested, before they went to court, after they made a court appearance or at some other point during the judicial process? Could the delegation clarify whether people could be remanded into police custody by a judge and how long could this situation last?

A Committee member reiterated his question as to what extent had the State party tried to implement the recommendations of the Committee against Torture? In terms of the charges against the military, there were credible reports and studies that showed that there was a problem with torture in the country and reliable non-governmental organization reports and eye-witness accounts of human rights violations gave the Committee reason to believe that security forces may have used excessive or lethal force or abuse of power.

In terms of access of the International Committee of the Red Cross to the Ogaden region, it was in the public domain that the agency had not been able to access the region so they were not asking anything that would compromise the status of any ongoing negotiations. Could the delegation say whether the International Committee of the Red Cross had been given access to the area or not?

What measures would the State take to protect civilians in the Somali region? Had there been any arrests? In the Gambala situation, what were the sentences that had been handed down to perpetrators?

The delegation had not answered questions regarding human trafficking so a Committee member reiterated that question.

The delegation had said that there was a special detention for those who were sentenced to death. Could they provide precise statistics on death penalty convictions and actual executions in the last three years?

Response by Delegation

The delegation said that in regard to extraditing the general accused of human rights violations, the State had filed a formal extradition treaty with Zimbabwe, but Ethiopia did not have an extradition treaty with Zimbabwe so their request had been unsuccessful and they had tried him in absentia.

The delegation said that it had not meant to imply that there had never been any acts of torture in Ethiopia, because as they all knew any country could be home to acts of torture as was seen by Abu Ghraib and other events. What they were trying to say was that in Ethiopia there was no systematic underlying practice of torture in the country. This meant that the Government did not authorize, allow, permit or condone torture at all. They were not saying there were no cases, but the Government did not condone them and when these cases were revealed the perpetrators were brought to justice.

Turning to prison conditions, the delegation acknowledged that the situation was not satisfactory, but this did not emanate from a lack of commitment on behalf of Government, but rather represented a lack of resources. There were health centres that provided health services for prisoners, without discrimination. Measures were being taken by the Government to tackle overcrowding, including the building of new prisons. Prisoners were fed three times per day, but the quality and amount of food varied from region to region. The Human Rights Commission, the parliament and prison administration officials all visited prisons to assess the conditions and prisoners had several ways to file complaints. These complaint mechanisms included the right to file complaints directly to the prison administrator, the right to petition the courts directly, and the right to write recommendations for the suggestion box. People who were remanded to jail awaiting trial or other procedural matters were not housed in the same place as convicted felons.

Regarding the violence that had taken place in Gambela in 2003, two people had been sentenced to life in prison and the rest received ten year sentences. No one received the death penalty. Regarding the aftermath of the post-election violence in 2005, there were acts that could have led to serious loss of life so those people found guilty of participating in the violence were given sentences commiserate with the gravity of their crimes.

Turning to freedom of expression, the delegation said that some journalists who had been arrested were not arrested for being journalists but rather for conspiracy to commit a crime in collaboration with people from abroad, including the destruction and sabotage of major facilities in the country such as electric power grids. Clear and credible evidence was established before they were arrested, and they had access to their lawyers and their families right away.

When a person was detained for a criminal charge they could access their lawyer immediately, as soon as they were arrested and they could speak in private. A directive was also given to police officers to respect the due process of law. There was no legislative framework to appoint a lawyer for cases tried in absentia; a lawyer could only be appointed for accused people who were too poor to afford a lawyer. No one had been executed under the death penalty in over three years. The recommendations from the Committee against Torture were very recent so the State had not implemented all of them. They also had recommendations from the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and they would have them from this Committee as well as those from the Universal Periodic Review. So what they were trying to do was to gather all the recommendations together and confer with all stakeholders and then implement a national action plan to apply the recommendations.

The International Committee of the Red Cross did not have access to Somali land or prisons at this time. With regard to human trafficking, the delegation said that quite a lot had been done and they shared the Committee’s view that this was a very serious issue. They had devised several interventions at different levels, including a national action plan that was devised and implemented by an intergovernmental committee. In addition to addressing the law enforcement aspect, they also had to address the economic aspects because poverty was often what made people vulnerable to trafficking. The authorities had conducted numerous awareness-raising campaigns to alert women to the dangers of trafficking and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and the Ministry for Women’s Affairs also monitored employment agencies to ensure they were not luring women into human trafficking. They also worked with international agencies such the International Organization for Migration.

Questions by Committee Members

A Committee member said that there could be situations in which someone pled guilty to a crime because they were under duress and then wanted an appeals court to review their case and the original conviction. Why was there a law ruling out such an appeal? Did terrorism suspects have access to a lawyer right away like suspects in other crimes? Were birth certificates available to all children born in Ethiopia, for example the children of refugees and asylum seekers?

Could decisions made by Shari’a courts be reviewed by regular courts? This practice seemed inconsistent with the Covenant. Women’s issues also needed to be addressed in the Shari’a courts in terms of equality and the issue of consent. The Expert then asked to what extent the food security crisis had, or could have, on the enjoyment on civil and political rights. For example, was Ethiopia assuring that all groups offering humanitarian assistance operated with a human rights based approach?

Regarding freedom of expression, it seemed that there were provisions of the anti-terrorism law that could be used to silence media organizations that were critical of the Government. After the post-election violence of 2005, 14 journalists and 6 publishing companies were charged under article 8 of the criminal code, which carried the death penalty. Since then 13 independent newspapers had been shut down.

According to reports, harassment of journalists continued and they worked in a climate of fear and there was significant self-censorship in the work. A number of journalists had fled the country. Did the law have a chilling effect on the exercise of the freedom of expression? How could these actions be justified under article 13 of the Covenant? The Press and Freedom of Information Law limited press activities to registered companies, which journalists said significantly curtailed freedom of speech. Severe penalties were applied to defamation, particularly criticism of public figures. Criticisms levelled against public figures should enjoy more leeway than what could be lodged against private individuals.

Could the delegation comment on alleged violations of human rights committed against opposition parties? Could they also comment on allegations of repressive measures against civil society organizations?

Could the delegation please talk about children who did not attend school and were working and the issue of child prostitution? What protections were in place for orphaned and vulnerable children, including street children, child heads of households, child labourers, and child prostitutes? Was school free and compulsory? Was there any plan to increase the age of responsibility from the age of 9 to 18? Was there a separate juvenile justice system?

Did the Government guarantee access to information? There were reports that the Government had blocked websites that it felt were critical of the authorities.

The right to appeal was guaranteed by the Covenant so if Ethiopia had a law barring this then they needed to submit a reservation to the relevant article. In terms of traditional justice and customary courts, what happened when their positions ran counter to the provisions of the Covenant? Would the State party provide interpretation services when someone did not speak one of the official languages?

Response by Delegation

The delegation said that the response to the question on Shari’a law was in the list of issues and they had also addressed the issue in previous sessions. The decisions reached in Shari’a courts were consensual and neither party was obliged to go to Shari’a court; they could go to civil courts, but when they went to a Shari’s court then Shari’a law would be applied. The Shari’a court had an appellate level to which parties could appeal based on substantive issues of law. If there was an error of law the parties could appeal to the civil Supreme Court.

Local associations established from the grassroots level enjoyed favourable conditions thanks to the Civil Society Proclamation. After this law came into force more than 2,700 civil society organizations registered, of which more than 500 were newly established. According to the law on civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations could not receive more than a certain percentage of their income from foreign sources and if they violated this law their bank accounts could be frozen and they could be shut down.

There was a special prosecutor’s office that dealt specifically with violence against women by prosecuting crimes, providing legal aid and running a hotline service. In relation to vulnerable and orphaned children, including street children, the Government had undertaken a number of initiatives including those to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, school lunch and school uniform programmes and a rehabilitation centre for street children. Orphanages were government run and priority was given to orphaned children in land distribution schemes in rural areas. Birth registrations and all vital registrations and statistics such as marriages, deaths and divorces would be streamlined under a new draft bill. Adoption was a controlled system and extensive provisions were provided for in law.

A victim-centred specialized court had been established to allow victims, particularly women and children, to give testimony in a safe environment and to ensure they were not victimized twice. Testimony was given from a room with closed circuit TV to reduce anxiety. Only a select audience could take part in the deliberations of the court and this method had proved effective.

The minimum age of criminal responsibility was 9 years old and 15 years was the upper limit of juvenile justice law. The delegation said it could not promise this would change. Regarding guilty pleas, if someone pled guilty the judge could sentence them without hearing further evidence. The Criminal Code provided for an appeal to a higher tribunal if a person had pled guilty, but wanted to contest the legality of the sentence against him or her. Interpreters were provided to people who did not understand the language from the time of their arrest to their sentencing as provided for under article 19 of the constitution.

Turning to the freedom of the press and freedom of expression, the delegation shared the view that without an independent media, citizens could not make informed decisions. Having said that, not every newspaper was helpful in that regard and not every media outlet helped citizens make informed decisions. The Freedom of Information Act of 2008 obliged the Government to provide information to every reporter and it abolished prison terms for crimes committed in the print media. Every two weeks press could attend a press conference with the Prime Minister. This was a vast improvement over what they had before. The delegation did not see how an anti-terrorist law could have a chilling effect on reporters. The mere fact that they had this law did not curtail liberties guaranteed under the constitution. Journalists were no longer threatened with detention and investigation as they had been in the past. The law did not shrink the space in which citizens could deliberate an debate and have political discussions. It was true that after 2005 some newspapers went out of business and this was because previously they had not been held accountable for any of the things they did. Extremist journalism was not a reflection of democracy and citizens could not make decisions based on highly radicalized press output.

Regarding the minority issue, the Ethiopian federal system was unparalleled in empowering linguistic minorities. Every linguistic minority group, no matter how small was guaranteed at least 1 seat in the legislative branch and they had more than 80 languages and dialects in the country and people had the right to education in their own language. People had misgivings about their experiment to allow each linguistic minority its own autonomy, but after 20 years the experiment was going well.

Advocacy work was not dependent on money, but rather how hard the members worked to advance their objectives. The abolition of pre-trial detention for media related offences, government transparency, and editorial independence had allowed media to flourish in the country. They expected the media to increase rapidly in the next few years. The food situation was dire in the Horn of Africa. There was no famine or even the edge of famine in Ethiopia and the Government would not allow people to die for lack of food. There was no discrimination in the provision of aid and the necessary humanitarian space was secured. This situation was created largely by climactic vulnerability and Ethiopia had a long term food security plan to ensure they could feed their people. Their goals were to become a middle income country, realize the Millennium Development Goals and increase their agricultural productivity.

In addition, there was a national children’s plan of action with targets of mainstreaming children’s objectives across all departments, reducing the rate of sexual assault and abuse against children and reducing child migration and trafficking, among other things.

Questions by Committee Members

In a round of follow-up questions, a Committee Expert said the Committee was preparing a General Comment on the freedom of expression.

There were reports that Voice of America and Deutsche Welle were blocked in Ethiopia and the speaker hoped that the webcast of the Committee was not blocked as well. Was it true that certain internet sites were blocked by Ethiopian authorities, including the live webcast of this Committee?

A Committee member reiterated questions about birth certificates for children born to refugees as well as the right to a lawyer under all circumstances.

Would the State party not even consider changing the age limit for criminal responsibility to 19?

Response by Delegation

The delegation duly noted the Committee’s concern about the age of legal responsibility.

With regard to birth certificates, the delegation said there was no difference between children in terms of receiving the document. All children born in Ethiopia received birth certificates. Everyone had access to a lawyer from the moment of detention no matter what the charges.

The delegation had no information on websites being blocked.

Concluding Remarks

FISSEHA YIMER, Special Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ethiopia, in concluding remarks, said that the past two days had been an enriching experience for the Ethiopian delegation. The honest exchange of views was highly educational and they appreciated the Committee’s interest and concern in the human rights situation in Ethiopia. He assured the Committee that the delegation had done its best to answer all queries put to it. Their recommendations would help them prepare their next report. This had been an indispensible and fruitful experience and he thanked the Committee on behalf of the delegation for the courteous and enriching experience.

ZONKE ZANELE MAJODINA, Committee Chairperson, applauded the commitment of the Ethiopian Government and she highlighted the well written report and the attendance of such a high level delegation. The Committee was grateful to the replies given to their questions and their commitment to international law. However, there were some concerns including around issues related to anti-terrorism legislation and its use to stifle freedom of expression; gender equality, particularly as it related to polygamy, female genital mutilation and the application of Shari’s law; the alleged widespread use of torture; freedom of assembly and expression; and how the Covenant was applied in domestic courts

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For use of the information media; not an official record

Comments

  1. Senbet says:

    This is Puerly “Addis Zemen” You “adherent”, why you go and rule in ERTA.

  2. [...] is to be recalled that the United Nations Human Rights Committee held a questions and answer session last month to conclude its consideration of Ethiopia’s first report on the implementation of the [...]

  3. Wale says:

    Danial,
    what is wrong with you? i think you are playing the role of government’s spokesperson. if i were you, i would like to do something useful for you and your bosses. Now I think you have taken their works from them and they would be angry with you. They love their job and you know the reason: house, allowance,free government car and food to fill their belly. Then if you take their work in these way, you are standing on their way and putting them on the verge of danger. so you are not doing anything useful for both of you. look for something else or do something meaningful. Wa’yi.

  4. Wale says:

    I have seen that man even before my comment. I am just warning you that you may offend your bosses.

  5. Wale says:

    Well if you think that this is something meaningful and it gives you meaning,which i am quite sure it does not, go a head.

  6. [...] How come gay-bashing topped the religious leaders’ agenda? As there is literally no pro-LGBT movement in the country and the government sees ‘no possibility of changing the law on this subject at present’, as its representatives told the UN Human Rights Committee last July. [...]

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