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Human Rights Report of Ethiopia   


By Rakeb Messele ABERRA

1. Background

Ethiopia differs from other African countries in that foreign interests never colonized it, except for a five-year Italian occupation from 1936-1941. In August 1995, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was established replacing the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, which was established in 1991 after the overthrow of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam's 17-year-long Marxist dictatorship. Prior to the Mengistu government, Ethiopia was ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie I, who played a major role in creating the countrys legal system. During Mengistu's regime, civil war in Eritrea and Tigray and conflict with the neighboring country Somalia together with drought and famine took the life of millions.

Ethiopia, with more that 80 ethnic groups, has a parliamentary federal government. The two primary federal bodies are the House of Peoples’ Representatives and the House of Federation. The former has broad legislative powers, while the latter is responsible primarily for interpreting the Constitution and promoting unity between Ethiopia’s various nationalities. Negasso Gidada, who has been the Head of State for the past six years, has been replaced by Major Girma Wolde Giorgis, aged 77, on 8 October 2001. During the last year of his presidency, President Negasso has been in a number of misunderstandings with the ruling political party, Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

The Prime Minister, , has the highest executive powers together with the Council of Ministers. The Prime Minister was first elected in 1995, when the citizens of Ethiopia exercised the right to vote for a national government for the first time, pursuant to a revised Constitution ratified in December 1994. He was reelected in the second national election in May 2000 and lastly Meles Zenawi elected for third period in 15 May 2005. The next election supposed to be held in 2010

The 1994 Constitution further establishes an independent judiciary both at the federal and state levels. Though the ultimate power to review the constitutionality of law lies with the Federal Council, courts have powers to both create and interpret laws.

The judicial system of Ethiopia is restructured along federal lines with courts at the district, zonal and regional levels. The federal High Court and federal Supreme Court hear and adjudicate original and appeal cases involving federal law, transregional issues and national security. The regional judiciary is autonomous and mirrored the structured of the federal judiciary.

The Constitution provides legal standing to some preexisting religious and customary courts and gives federal and regional legislatures the power to recognize other courts. The Constitution has further specifically stated that both parties to a dispute need to agree for a customary or religious court to have jurisdiction to hear their case. Sharia (Islamic) courts may hear religious and family cases involving Muslims. In addition, some traditional courts resolve disputes especially in the rural areas where formal judicial system is not adequately accessible.

The Ethiopian civil legal system has its primary source in legislation. The Constitution declares itself the supreme law of the land. It further gives all international agreements ratified by Ethiopia, the status of national law. In addition, the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution are to be interpreted “in conformity with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and with the principles of other relevant international instruments, which Ethiopia has accepted or ratified”. However domestic application of international standards is very minimal.

2. Human rights record

The Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) has generally a poor record of human rights though there were improvements in few areas.

The border conflict with Eritrea, its former province that won independence in 1993 after a 30-year war, that erupted in 1998 resulted in drastic humanitarian consequences, and contributed considerably to the worsening of the human rights situation of both parties. The two-year conflict was estimated to have killed and wounded tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and uprooted nearly a million people. By early 2000, Ethiopian authorities, citing broad threats to national security had forcibly expelled some 70, 000 Eritreans to Eritrea. Those who remain in the country are registered as aliens. Some of those expelled were lifelong Ethiopian citizens. Many of the deportees were children and elderly persons who do not conceivably posed credible security threats. Concerning the controversial issue of Ethiopian nationality, the Ethiopian Government held that it had a legal right to deport Ethiopians of Eritrean origin who had voted in the 1993 referendum on the independence of Eritrea. However at the time of the referendum, the Ethiopian authorities did not declare that participation in the referendum would constitute a formal renunciation of Ethiopian nationality. At the time, the two governments that were the closest of allies, both focused in facilitating the referendum and endorsing its result and left sensitive issues of nationality and border demarcation unresolved.

On the other hand, tens of thousands Ethiopian residents of Eritrea returned to Ethiopia under duress. Eritrean authorities further returned thousands of Ethiopian residents under harsh conditions citing unspecified threats to national security, and the need to protect the internees from angry mobs. The Ethiopian Government claims that some of its nationals have undergone torture and ill treatment, including rape by the Eritrean authorities.

The roundups and deportation raised fundamental concerns regarding arbitrary arrest and detention, forced exile, the forcible separation of families, nationality issue, hardship and financial losses. The judiciary did not challenge the lawfulness of the detention and deportation as the deportation was undertaken within few days of the arrest. However according to testimonies of the deportees, torture and other physical maltreatment during detention and deportation were limited. Ethiopia granted the ICRC regular access to Eritrean prisoners of war and hundreds of civilian internees. Overcrowding of detention camps remains nevertheless a serious problem, prison conditions are not sanitary and access to medical care is not reliable. However international observers have reported that the conditions were improving.

During the course of the conflict, both Ethiopian and Eritrean governments started to support each other opposition groups. Ethiopia accused Eritrea of arming and training the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), insurgents that fought for years for self-determination in Oromia region. Ethiopia sent troops to Somalia and made limited incursions into northeastern Kenya to tackle OLF elements, giving the conflict a great potential to intensify into a regional one. At the same time, Ethiopia encourages exiled Eritreans oppositions groups to topple the Eritrean government.

Despite the efforts made by mostly the OAU, the UN and the USA, both parties insisted to ensure key strategic advantages on the battlefield before they engage in any meaningful peace agreement. However, the pressure by the international community was minimal compared to the ones exerted in Kosovo, the Indian Subcontinent and East Timor. The UN Security Council, in a February 10 resolution, demanded for a cease-fire and for an imposition of an arms embargo on both countries.

Ethiopia launched a massive attack against Eritrea on 12 May 2000 and successfully retook disputed territories that Eritrea had occupied at the beginning of the war, while seriously weakening the Eritrean military capacity. The two parties agreed on 18 June to a cessation of hostility agreement proposed by the OAU with the backing of the USA and the European Union. The agreement provided for the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force in a temporary security zone, 25 km inside Eritrea along the entire border, a time frame for the neutral demarcation of the bitterly disputed borders, and the conclusion of a permanent cease-fire. The Framework Agreement and the Modalities for its implementation were accepted by the two parties as a result of great efforts by the OAU and were endorsed by the latters Summit in July 1999. The Framework Agreement provided a basis for addressing the human rights and humanitarian problems resulting from the conflict, committing the two parties to put an end to measures directed against the civilian population and to refrain from any action which can cause further hardship and suffering to each others nationals. They further agreed to address the negative socio-economic impact of the crisis on the civilian population, particularly those persons who had been deported”. The OAU in collaboration with the UN was to deploy human rights monitors “in order to contribute to the establishment of a climate of confidence between the two parties” under the terms of the Framework Agreement. However, in contrast to its active role in the mediation process, the OAU proved itself far less assertive when it comes to the definition of formal mediation and arbitration mechanisms to address the human rights and humanitarian consequences of the conflict.

On the other hand, the Government led by the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) held the second election in May 2000, where members of the two chambers of Parliament were elected pursuant to the Constitution. Nevertheless, the principal faction within the EPRDF remains Prime Minister Meles Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF). Around sixty political parties were registered and in November, the Government initiated a dialog with opposition parties to discuss preparation for the election. However, the EPRDF has strict hold over Ethiopia's ethnically defined federal states through regional ethnically defined parties affiliated to it. Complaints are made by autonomous opposing political groups, on the restrictions that the Government imposes on their right to freely participate in the government. Government officials accepted election monitoring by the OAU, local UN staff and domestic NGOs but stated that they would not invite international observers. While the elections were reported by observers to be generally free and fair in most areas, though serious election irregularities occurred in the Southern Nations and Nationalities Peoples’ Regional State. At the end of its investigation, the National Electoral Board determined that some of the complaints had merits and even ordered new elections in some areas. At the end of May 2000 election, in the 547-seat federal parliament (House of the People's Representatives), EPRDF candidates won 481 seats, EPRDF affiliate candidates won 37 seats, opposition party candidates won 16 seats and independent candidates won 13 seats.

During the first half of 2001, the ruling party, EPRDF, had major political problems among its own members. The party had to split into two, with members on Meles side remaining in power after winning mere majority. Two of them and a number of businesspersons were then arrested, detained and charged for abuse of power and corruption among others. Since then, the Government has taken steps to enact anti-corruption legislation and to establish a commission.

The law does not restrict the participation of women or minorities in politics. While women's status in political participation is greater than ever, women are minimally represented in the political sphere. Women occupy forty-two of the 547-seat in the parliament. Four of the 27 members of the Council of Ministers that were appointed on 16 October 2001 are women. Ten of 113 members in the House of Federation are female. There are three women in the Supreme Court.

2.1 Political and other extrajudicial killing

The number of extra-judicial killings and disappearances is on the decline though there are still claims that there were many politically motivated disappearances. In relation to this, the Government reported that it has jailed or dismissed officials for abusing their authority and violating human rights. In May 2001 in Addis Ababa, it is alleged that the police killed more than 30 people and detained hundreds of students during a riot that has started by students claiming issues of rights.

In 1997, the Federal High Court in Addis Ababa began the arraignment and prosecution of 5,198 person formally charged with genocide and other war crimes under the pervious regime, including Colonel Mengistu who is now in exile in Zimbabwe. In November 1999 the Federal High Court handed down the first death sentence in absentia to a former district governor and army lieutenant, Getachew Tebeka. Because of lack of staff and funds, some had spent more than six (6) years in pro-trial detention.

2.2 Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment

There were credible reports that security officials sometimes beat or mistreat detainees. Prisons are overcrowded and the conditions are not sanitary. Access to medical care is not reliable. In general, the ICRC has access to federal and regional prisons, civilian detention facilities and police detentions throughout the country.

Female Genital Mutilation as a degrading and humiliating practice against women is widespread in Ethiopia though research show that it is on the decline. In addition, though traditional forms of slavery is abolished in Ethiopia, the matter is manifesting itself today by way of sale of children, child labour, child soldier and prostitution, bonded labour, smuggling and trafficking of women especially in the Middle East.

2.3 Arbitrary arrest, detention or exile

Thousands of criminal suspects remained in detention without charge, most of who were accused of involvement in OLF terrorist activities. Often these lengthy detentions are due to the severe shortage and limited training of judges, prosecutors and attorneys. The roundups and deportation of civilian residents of Eritrean origin have raised a major concern in this respect as well.

2.4 Denial of fair public trial

Though the courts show signs of independence, the judiciary is weak and overburdened. Severe shortage of adequately trained personnel in many regions, as well as serious financial constraints add up to the problem.

To remedy this problem, the Government identifies and trains lower court judges and prosecutors. Foreign financial and technical assistance is welcomed to accelerate this process.

Furthermore religious and customary courts that are recognized by the Constitution have led to numerous violations of human rights especially women’s rights as cases are brought to these courts without their consent despite the constitutional requirement.

2.5 Freedom of speech and press

The Constitution and the 1992 Press Law provide for the freedom of speech and of the press; however in practice the Government continued to prosecute journalists and editors for publishing articles that violated the Press Law, and some journalists practiced self-censorship. Nevertheless, the private press is still very active and openly criticizes the Government. Many continue to publish false information, unsubstantiated stories, and harsh anti-government articles without any official sanction. No newspaper or publication has been banned so far. Nevertheless, citizens are generally free to discuss publicly any topic they choose.

Radio remains the most influential medium of information, especially for those who live in rural areas. The Press Law allows for private radio stations.

2.6 Freedom of peaceful assembly and association

While the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is increasingly exercised, the Government still imposes limits by way of long unexplained delays in issuing permits for organizers of large public meetings or demonstrations that must be notified to the Government in advance. There are also unconfirmed reports that in May 2001, the police killed and detained a number of students during a riot.

The Government limits the right to freedom of association, though there was some progress towards the establishment of national and international institutions for the protection and promotion of human rights since the change in its procedures for registration of NGOs in 1996. However a number of policy issues regarding NGOs remain unresolved, and the NGO registration process still is extremely slow. In September 2001, the Ministry of Justice suspended the license of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association and blocked its bank account, notwithstanding the provision of the relevant legislation, claiming, rather vaguely, that it has been involved in political activities. Other human rights organizations like the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and the Human Rights League have also been facing problems during registration or while undertaking their activities. In July 2000, the outgoing parliament unanimously approved the proclamation establishing the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman, days before the end of its five-year tenure, though both institutions are not yet functional as of October 2001.

2.7 The right to freedom of religion

There were some instances of conflict among religious groups, mostly between Orthodox Christians on the one hand, and Evangelicals and Pentecostals on the other. In most inter-religious disputes, the Government maintains neutrality and tries to be an impartial arbitrator. However, in most sections of the country, Orthodox Christians and Muslims participate in each other religious observances, and there is tolerance for intermarriage and conversion.

2.8 Discrimination based on sex, disability, race and age

2.8.1 Women

The Constitution provides for the equality of women. The Government has further formally adopted a National Program of Action in 1997 to enhance the status of women. The Program seeks to expand educational and work opportunities for women, improve women's access to health care, and educate women about certain unhealthy traditional practices such as early marriage. However, harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation, early marriage, and abduction are still pervasive social problems, though some are on the decline. While in most cases women have recourse to the police and the courts, societal norms and limited infrastructure which is not, in most cases, gender-sensitive inhibit many women from seeking legal redress, especially in rural areas.

The 1960 Family Law of Ethiopia, which incorporated various provisions contravening the equality clause of the Constitution, was amended in July 2000 as a result of the persistent zeal and committed efforts of many women's groups. The Revised Family Law provides for instance, that divorce cases are to be seen and decided upon in a court of law, contrary to the Civil Code of 1960, which gives the legal power to dissolve marriages to Family Arbitration Council, irrespective of their legal incompetence and their tendency to be impartial among others.

The Ministry of Justice has also completed a revision of the 1957 Penal Code and national debate is being undertaken though various provisions still need to be reconsidered.

Discrimination is most acute in the rural areas. The high level of illiteracy, the high school dropout rate, sexual harassment of girls at school and the lack of vocational training programmes remain a concern for Ethiopian women. Women are minimally represented at the higher decision-making levels, though their number in the House of People's Representatives has increased from 15 to 42 among 547 members in May 2000 election.

Though the law prohibits trafficking in persons, numerous young girls, in search for employment opportunities, are trafficked to the Middle East. There are credible reports that female workers were abused, including sexually and even killed. There is a network of persons involved and benefiting from this industry.

2.8.2 People with disabilities

Limited Government resources restrict action to provide rehabilitation and assistance to the physically and mentally disabled. A 1994 census determined that there were 989,000 disabled persons in the country. This number is believed to have gone significantly higher due to the Ethio-Eritrea border conflict. The Government does not yet mandate access to buildings or government services for the disabled.

2.8.3 National/racial/ethnic minorities

There are more than 80 ethnic groups. Although many of these groups have influenced the political and cultural life of the country, Amharas and Tigrayans from the northern highlands have played a dominant role. Some ethnic groups such as the Oromos, the largest single group, were subjugated during the 19th century. In an attempt to address ethnic concerns, the Government has established a federal system with political boundaries drawn roughly along major ethnic lines. With federalism, regional states have much greater control over their affairs.

2.8.4 Children

The government has limited ability to provide improved health care and basic education and thus has encouraged efforts by domestic and international NGOs that focus on children's social, health and legal issues. The overall literacy rate is approximately 23 percent: only 17% of women are literate compared with 26% of men.

Discrimination and harmful traditional practices against young girls continues to be a problem. The law does not specifically prohibit female genital mutilation though the constitution prohibits all practices that affect the physical and mental well being of women. Early marriage, with girl as young as 9 years, is common in some part of the rural areas.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child forwarded its concern in its concluding observations at its 26th Session on January 2001, about the large numbers of children living or working on the streets of main cities of Ethiopia. These children mainly beg or work in the informal sectors in order to survive. The Committee further showed its concern to the number of children involved in child labour. Prostitution of young girls remains a problem. Factors aggravating the problem are pervasive poverty, migration to urban areas, and limited educational and job opportunities. With this regard, Ethiopia ratified in 1999 the ILO conventions 138 concerning the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment and 182 concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

The Revised Family Law also amends some aspects of existing legislation, which were in contradiction with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, such as the legal age of marriage. The Revised Family Law now sets the legal age of marriage of both boys and girls at 18 years, amending the previous legal age of 15 for girls and 18 for boys.

Ethiopia has currently only one juvenile justice court in the country and only one Remand Home for child offenders, both in Addis Ababa. Moreover, children are not separated from adults while in detention. The Committee on the Rights of the Child is also concerned that the legal minimum age of criminal responsibility is set at the very low age of 9 years.

Nevertheless, 10 Child Protection Units staffed by members of an NGO were created in Addis Ababa’s Police Stations to protect the rights of children by assisting them when they become victims of crime. Some police officers have taken training on procedures for handling cases of child abuse and juvenile delinquency.


1. Amnesty International Annual Report 2000: Ethiopia <http://www.web.amnesty.org/web/ar2000web.nsf/countries/3e 0dc7320 006c4bb802568f200â?¦> (Accessed 2 June 2001)

 2. Human Rights Watch Report 1999: Ethiopia <http://www.hrw.org/wr2k/Africa-03.htm> (Accessed 2 June 2001)
3. Human Rights Watch Report 2001: Ethiopia <http://www.hrw.org/wr2k1/africa/ethiopia3.htm> (Accessed 2 June 2001)
4. The Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
5. United Nations Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women: Ethiopia (09 May 1996) A/51/38, paras 134-163
6. United Nations Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Rights of the Child: Ethiopia (31 January 2001) CRC/C/15/Add.144
7. US Department of State 1999 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Ethiopia (25 February 2000) <http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/1999_hrp_rep ort/ethiopia.html> (Accessed 2 July 2001)
8. US Department of State 2000 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Ethiopia (February 2001) <http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2000/af/index.cfm?docid=7 89> (Accessed 9 March 2001)


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