Ethiopia's EHRC chief: „I remain hopeful“

Daniel Bekele, head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, speaks about his work, the Joint Report with the UN and the perspectives for peace.

Daniel Bekele Foto: Deutsche Afrika-Stiftung

This interview was conducted on the day that Daniel Bekele received the German Africa award 2021 from the Deutsche Afrika-Stiftung in Berlin on 18 November 2021. The German version published in TAZ on 19 November can be found here.

Taz: Congratulations on the award you're getting tonight. But isn't it unfortunate timing now to be giving a human rights award to Ethiopia?

Daniel Bekele: I am honoured and humbled by the award from Germany. It definitely is a difficult time for Ethiopia, but the award is also a recognition of the efforts of institutions and human rights workers like me who are trying to work in a very difficult situation. Every time you recognise a human rights institution or human rights defender, we never forget the pain and suffering of people behind those stories. There's never a good time for a human rights award because it's always a story of human suffering, but I'm encouraged by the fact that there is international recognition and support for the difficult work we are doing.

How has the current situation affected your work? There's a state of emergency, and criticising what's being done under the state of emergency is illegal. Surely that's a problem for you?

Not in a direct way, because one of the mandates given to my institution is monitoring the human rights situation even in times of state of emergency. As recently as yesterday we reported about a wave of arrests and human rights concerns around that.

In that report, you expressed concern about your inability to gather information and compile a report on detainees detained under the state of emergency. So how does it work in practice? Are you able to do your work?

We go out on investigation and monitoring missions. In some detention centres we get the necessary cooperation to ask for information, to visit detainees, and we get access to some of these places. But there are also places where we are not able to get access due to lack of cooperation by the security officers at the particular police station. But this is a challenge that we work with even without a state of emergency. According to the law we should have unhindered access. It's a new law which has given power to the Commission, and a lot of regional and federal level law enforcement officers are yet to understand how this new law is to be applied actually. So it's a work in progress.

Do you feel you are able to report freely on what you are able to gather?

We report freely, as evidenced by the work we have been doing over the last two years, including during the state of emergency. So no restriction, no interference whatsoever.

You undertook the Joint Investigation with the UN Human Rights Commission on the war in Tigray which caused quite a stir when it was published. There was criticism of that investigation, saying it was unduly influenced by the government. Would you agree with that?

I totally would disagree, because it was not influenced by the state at all, and it would probably be good if my UN colleagues spoke out on that. Some people may not have confidence in my commission, but I hope they have confidence in the UN. I don't think the UN got into this to be influenced by the state. I understand where such criticisms and concerns come from, and we are open to criticism and feedback, but I have also seen a lot of very unfair and inaccurate accusations, including smear campaigns.

One accusation is that ethnic Tigrayans were removed from the investigation…

Completely inaccurate. No ethnic Tigrayans were removed from the investigation team from the EHRC side. There were two ethnic Tigrayans who stayed as members of the investigation team throughout the investigation period. Our Commission has staff from across the country, and we also have a branch office in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, and all the colleagues in the Mekelle office are ethnic Tigrayans as well, so this is completely inaccurate.

Another accusation: you were unable to visit places unless authorised by the government, so that many places you should have visited could not be accessed.

That was one of the major limitations of that report, as we have clearly stated in the report itself. When this joint investigation was established with the UN, we had a list of places we wanted to access to be able to do a comprehensive account of the human rights situation, but unfortunately because of the reality on the ground – that the Federal Government withdrew from Tigray following its unilateral declaration of ceasefire – we were not able to access parts of Tigray, because the TPLF did not accept this joint investigation and refused to cooperate. That's really the main reason, and the security situation. But somehow we have managed to speak with people who have fled from those areas and are now residing in IDP camps. So at least we have tried to complement that gap. And finally this report by no means purports to be comprehensive, even for the areas we have visited, but it is fairly reflective of the general patterns and I'm hoping in the future there would be an oppportunity to cover other areas as well.

And then there is the issue about satellite phones which were ordered for the team and then not issued.

We have also clearly stated that in the report. It was one of the challenges and limitations in the investigation process. The team members needed satellite phones for their safety and security. The clearance process from the government time unnecessarily took a long time and unfortunately the investigation team was moving around the country without these facilities, which meant that it compromised the security of our staff. But luckily nothing bad has happened and this has not in any way hampered their work. It was unfortunate that those satellite phones were not put into use, but in no way did it affect the investigation.

So you're saying the investigation was not affected by the question of whether the staff are secure or not?

No, what I'm saying is: Whenever you go on an investigation mission, you want to make sure your staff are safe. And I was concerned that our staff did not have this communication facility in some of the places they travelled to where network connection is either unavailable or very poor. But it did not affect the actual investigation they did in terms of talking to victims, witnesses, families, gathering information. They were able to do their work despite the lack of telecommunication facilites.

One final criticism: that victims may not have felt free to speak because sometimes the investigators were accompanied by security personnel – maybe not uniformed, but civilian ones. Can you confirm that?

That's completely inaccurate. We have never interviewed a single person in the presence of anyone else, whether a uniformed person or non-uniformed person. This is standard practice in any human rights investigation. You don't get to be accompanied by anyone. This is a joint investigation team, people from the EHRC, people from the UN, nobody else.

What should happen now with this report? What should be the consequences, from your point of view?

I hope this report would contribute to three outcomes. One is: concrete measures of accountability for perpetrators from all sides. I would like to see governments, particularly the Ethiopian government, begin to take some concrete measures to hold perpetrators to account on the basis of in-depth criminal investigations. Second, concrete actions and measures for redress for victims and rehabilitation of victims and humanitarian workers. Lots of people's lives have been completely shattered. Many of them have told us repeatedly: They want their life back. They lost their property, they've been displaced, they lost their loved ones, so it's very important. And finally I would like to see the report being a basis for a search for a sustainable solution for this unfortunate problem, which essentially is a political problem and needs a political solution.

What could a sustainable solution look like?

First and foremost it should start with a cessation of hostilites. The gun has to stop, on both sides. Then you require a series of confidence-building measures on both sides. There would be a list of demands and questions from all sides to this conflict, and it is about starting a process of resolving those differences in talking, in negotiation, in having a conversation. But the first step is stopping the guns, allowing unhindered humanitarian access and bringing brothers and sisters together to resolve their differences in a peaceful way, and this should be doable.

Do you see the willingness on both sides to do that?

I am encouraged by the fact that in recent efforts, with the leadership of the AU Special Envoy and the support of the US and EU envoys from behind, both sides have in principle agreed that this problem requires a political solution. We have not yet seen that being translated into actions on the ground, but I think we are beginning to see some hope of mediation out of this crisis.

At the same time there has been quite a lot of inflammatory public statements and hate speech from some people on the government side towards Tigrayans, which has caused some on the other side to say there's a genocide ongoing or in preparation. What do you say to that accusation?

The joint investigation identified a wide range of human rights violations and abuses, some of which amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. But at least as far as the joint investigation is concerned we have not identified legal and practical elements of the crime of genocide. The term genocide is a legal term we should be very careful in using and applying. Sadly in Ethiopia's recent ethnic-based conflict it's a term that a lot of people use. Almost all ethnic groups in Ethiopia would tell you there is a genocide against them. Which partly is a reflection of lack of understanding of what exactly a genocide means, and partly popular understanding of genocide to mean any ethnic based targeting and attack and killing. But I am concerned by the rhetoric you mention in this conflict situation. The rhetoric from all sides in this conflict is quite inflammatory and inciteful of violence. We have made repeated calls in the past for all sides, including their supporters and media workers, to refrain from hateful speech, inciteful speech, and be mindful of dehumanising terms. It's an unfortunate reflection of an extremely polarised, toxic political environment.

Has ethnic polarisation got worse in Ethiopia in recent years?

Oh, it has definitely got worse, there is no question about that. This whole idea of ethnic-based political organisation in Ethiopia has undoubtedly divided communites along ethnic lines in quite a polarising way. The ethnic-based political organisation of the state was meant to be a response to a history of inequality among ethnic groups in Ethiopia, but unfortunately it has caused more problems than it solved. Ethiopia as a multi-ethnic and diverse country definitely needs some kind of federal form of administration, but whether or not that needs to be ethnic based is one of the big questions that Ethiopians have to confront. Because it's probably one of the factors contributing to the tensions and the conflict.

Is Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rising to the challenge? Or is he adding fuel to the fire?

I hope the Prime Minister is taking his responsibility seriously. I am encouraged by the fact that he himself and his administration responded positively to the findings and conclusions and recommendations of the joint investigation. Historically the Ethiopian government has been very dismissive of international human rights investigation reports. This is the first time that the government agreed to a joint investigation on the Ethiopian human rights situation, and probably the first time the government responded positively to human rights findings and conclusions and recommendations, including some serious violations that credibly implicated the Ethiopian forces. So that gives me hope that he is rising to the challenge.

If you look at Ethiopia's future, are you hopeful or pessimistic?

I remain hopeful, despite the very depressing story we document. I remain hopeful looking at how Ethiopians are the first to come to support victims irrespective of their ethnic group. Host communities are the first humanitarian assistants for displaced people, neighbours are the first to come to the rescue of their neighbours and friends even in the midst of terrible massacres. So I remain hopeful that Ethiopians will overcome this difficult time. There is no question that this sad war has torn apart the fabric of communities and people's relationships, and it will definitely take time to heal those wounds, but I believe there is still hope for Ethiopia to come together, find a peaceful solution to our problems and move forward. This is not the first time Ethiopia has faced a major challenge in our history. So I remain hopeful that we shall overcome these difficult times.

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