OP-ED: Ethiopia must end culture of impunity to heal from decades of human rights violations

By Haben Fecadu is Amnesty International’s campaigner for the Horn of Africa.

Tamara Dawit grew up in a family that loved to tell stories, but there was one person they never spoke about. Tamara was in her thirties the first time she saw a photo of her aunt Sally, who disappeared four decades ago, during one of Ethiopia’s darkest chapters.

For so many Ethiopians, it seems that it’s safer to forget than to remember.
Tamara Dawit

“For so many Ethiopians, it seems that it’s safer to forget than to remember,” Tamara says.

But Tamara was determined to find out the truth about what happened to her aunt, and she documented her journey in a film, Finding Sally.

The film highlights one Ethiopian family’s experience of loss that has impacted them all their lives. Sally was 23 when she disappeared in the aftermath of the 1974 revolution, when Ethiopia’s imperial government was overthrown, paving way for the Derg, which ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist until it was ousted in 1991. 

Amnesty International documented the political violence and human rights violations that took place during this time.  In 1977, and 1978 in particular, Amnesty International recorded a myriad of human rights violations—mass extrajudicial executions, political imprisonment, enforced disappearances and torture—during what is known in Ethiopia as qey shebir, or the Red Terror. 

Amnesty reports from the time show the Derg ordered the armed leaders of the Revolutionary Guards to "wipe out counter-revolutionaries" in late 1976. In February 1977, Lieutenant-Colonel Mengistu Haile-Mariam, the Derg’s chairman, ordered that the revolution should "move from the defensive to the offensive" and "use the revolutionary sword" to "cleanse the city of counter-revolutionaries.” 

At mass rallies, Derg leaders ordered defense squads to liquidate all those who opposed the revolution. Several thousand people — mostly school and university students and young intellectuals suspected of opposing the Derg — were killed on the streets and in prisons.

At mass rallies, Derg leaders ordered defense squads to liquidate all those who opposed the revolution. Throughout the Red Terror campaign, several thousand people—mostly school and university students and young intellectuals suspected of opposing the Derg—were killed on the streets and in prisons in Addis Ababa and other towns in the centre of the country. Tens of thousands of others were detained and tortured. Every day, bodies were left exposed in public, many of them mutilated with denunciatory placards on them. Relatives were ordered to pay for the bullets which had been used to kill their loved ones. 

“The Derg saw itself as the guardians of the Revolution, quickly stealing the momentum from the young people whose energy had driven the uprising,” Tamara says. Tamara’s family never saw Sally again. 

But human rights violations did not end with the ouster of the Derg in 1991. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which took over leadership in 1991 also carried out serious violations—such as arbitrary detentions, torture, rape and enforced disappearances.

Again, in what seems like a repeat of history, Ethiopian youth were angry at systemic human rights repression and economic and political marginalization. They took to the streets and protested in vast numbers and in a sustained manner until there was a change of Ethiopian leadership in early 2018.

Again, in what seems like a repeat of history, Ethiopian youth were angry at systemic human rights repression and economic and political marginalization. They took to the streets and protested in vast numbers and in a sustained manner until there was a change of Ethiopian leadership in early 2018. This paved the way for the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and a new Ethiopian leadership.

The protesters were filled with hope for an era of respect for human rights, justice and accountability. After coming into office, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed formed economic and political partnerships with heads of state in the region and has gained a reputation for being a regional peacemaker. The prime minister has so far failed to bring justice to address the legacies of atrocities and violence in the country—all in a context of heightening intercommunal violence, hatred and discrimination around ethnic lines.

Prime minister Abiy Ahmed has so far failed to bring justice to address the legacies of atrocities and violence in the country—all in a context of heightening inter-communal violence, hatred and discrimination around ethnic lines.

Ethiopia has never made enough effort to close the impunity gap and ensure all victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparations. In the 1990s, the EPRDF held trials against higher-ranked Derg officials responsible for the Red Terror, but the trials were highly politicized, with some being held in absentia and under a law that had recourse to the death penalty. The trials did not meet international human rights standards. 

We saw trials with elements of unfairness like this again after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office in 2018 when over 60 high-level government officials were arrested on charges of torture and corruption. Once more, government efforts to hold perpetrators to account were welcome, but it is disappointing that the vast majority of crimes and violations remain unaddressed and victims of serious violations of human rights remain without remedy.

Efforts to guarantee victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation should be central in plans to prevent future atrocities and conflict in Ethiopia.

While the Reconciliation Commission Establishment Law passed in February 2019 is a good first step, no victim-centered justice process has yet been initiated to address the human rights violations that took place during the Red Terror or the EPRDF’s leadership. The law lacks clear material or temporal scope for grave human rights violations and reparations for individual victims of past human rights violations. It also evades accountability for human rights violations under the pretext of reconciliation. Efforts to guarantee victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation should be central in plans to prevent future atrocities and conflict in Ethiopia.

 

This article was first published in the Addis Standard.