Ethiopian human rights chief has his hands full


When Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed a former political prisoner head of the state-funded human rights commission, supporters hailed it as a sign the country might finally tackle security force abuses and move to break a cycle of bloody ethnic feuds.

Daniel Bekele left a high-ranking position at watchdog Human Rights Watch in New York to come home and take up the post.

Now reality has hit. He has one investigator for every million Ethiopians and low salaries make it impossible to attract and retain talent, he told Reuters. His own salary after tax is equivalent to $270 per month, common for civil servants.

Parliament, which he reports to, approves the commission’s budget, equivalent to $3 million annually, but the finance ministry approves all spending, curbing the commission’s autonomy.

Even if funds were adequate, he said, bureaucracy prevents speedy deployment of researchers to investigate ethnic clashes around the country that have killed hundreds in the past few months.

The commission was established 15 years ago but was largely ineffective. Security forces committed widespread abuses against civilians but the commission rarely documented them.
After three years of protests, the ruling coalition bowed to pressure and appointed Abiy in April 2018 to drive reforms. His peacemaking efforts with long-time foe and neighbour Eritrea won him the Nobel Peace Prize last month. He appointed former dissidents like Bekele to senior roles in the justice sector, raising hopes abuses will not go unpunished.

Ethiopia must push harder if it wants to break the cycle of violence, Bekele said.

“It is equally important to be as strong on pressing accountability for abuses,” he said. “A lack of accountability is simply continuing a cycle of abuse and impunity.”

The commission receives hundreds of complaints monthly. Bekele’s desk is piled with complaints ranging from domestic violence to mass killings. Only a small percentage are investigated due to scarce resources, he said.

Bekele is committed to his new role despite the challenges.

“It is worth it because we are in a new political chapter, with a new opening and a new opportunity which is promising,” he said.

Abiy spearheaded reforms including unbanning political parties, releasing political prisoners and welcoming home exiled militant groups. Yhe new freedoms meant long-repressed tensions surged between the country’s many ethnic groups.

The commission is investigating clashes last month in Oromiya region that resulted in more than 80 deaths, displacement and property destruction.

The federal army deployed to quell violence in several parts of the country and many fear more bloodshed ahead of general elections in May 2020.

The Sidama ethnic group is due to vote on Wednesday in a referendum on self-determination, a demand of eight other ethnic groups.

Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher, Fisseha Tekle, said the commission needs radical reforms to be effective. Simply having a dedicated leader is no substitute for institutional reform, he said.

“The commission is facing serious challenges due to the ever-increasing human rights crisis,” he said. “It is not well prepared.”