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Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at a press conference during his mission to Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, 4 May 2017

I wish to begin by extending my deepest gratitude to the Government of Ethiopia for its invitation to visit at this pivotal moment in the country's history, and for its generosity, hospitality and warmth ­– indeed, I was so well received by all the stakeholders here, it has been an extraordinary welcome.  I interpret this as a desire by the authorities to invest more in upholding the human rights of the Ethiopian people.

Some 50 years ago, Emperor Haile Selassie proclaimed, "We search for a way of life in which all will be treated as responsible human beings, able to participate fully in the political affairs of their government; a way of life in which ignorance and poverty, if not abolished, are at least the exception, and are actively combatted; a way of life in which the blessings and benefits of the modern world can be enjoyed by all without the total sacrifice of all that was good and beneficial in the old Ethiopia."

My mission seeks to assist the Ethiopian Government – and more broadly, Governments across the world – to achieve that vision.

Over the past few days, I have listened carefully to many voices.  I was honoured to meet His Excellency Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn; Honourable Speaker Abadula Gemeda; and their Excellencies the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister for Communications and Deputy Attorney-General. I also was briefed by the Chair of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and witnessed a vibrant dialogue between members of the opposition and ruling political parties. I further met representatives of civil society and paid a visit to Kilinto remand centre, where my team and I held discussions with officials and detainees.

In a significant step forward for my Office, I also signed, with the Government, a Memorandum of Intent that in due course will strengthen our Regional Office in Addis Ababa, in terms of providing capacity to support stakeholders across the region, including Ethiopia. 

At the African Union, I had the privilege of meeting Their Excellencies Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission; Smail Chergui, the AUC Commissioner for Peace and Security; Madam Cessouma Minata Samate, AUC Commissioner for Political Affairs; and other key policy-makers. It was a significant opportunity for me to discuss human rights priorities with the AU at the highest levels, as the new leadership develops its vision and frameworks for impact across the continent. 

Turning first to Ethiopia, I have found a great deal to praise in this country, beginning with Ethiopia's extensive contributions to peace and security across the African continent, and its notable acceptance of millions of refugees. At a time when other countries across the globe seem to be turning their backs on refugees, Ethiopia's example is much admired.  Domestically, very impressive advances have been made in recent years on people's right to education and health, by creating massively improved infrastructure, and achieving striking gains in the struggle to end extreme poverty. Many daunting challenges face this country; modern Ethiopia emerged from a long period of dictatorship, and the current security context in neighbouring Somalia and South Sudan is extremely difficult.

Over the years, Ethiopia has acceded to seven out of the nine core human rights treaties, undertaking a commitment to protect the human rights of its people – a commitment also reflected in many articles contained in its Constitution.  As with many other countries the central challenge lies in translating the commitment into action, and while some of the implementation has been very noteworthy, other commitments remain outstanding. We stand ready to assist in the progressive closing of the deficits.

I believe the unrest which broke out in November 2015 and August 2016 reveals the need for continuing and carefully planned adjustments in policy, to build on and fully realise the country's impressive achievements. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission has reported the extent to which the protests in Oromiyya and Amhara regions reflected public dissatisfaction with local governance, creating deep frustration on the part of many, and this was confirmed also to me by the leading officials of the state.  That there may have been political manipulation of these frustrations is not for me to address. What was certain, however, was the evident anxiety of many ordinary people, as evidenced by the numbers.  The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported at least 669 people were killed from August 2016 to March 2017. The Commission, among other points, courageously recommended that security personnel thought to have used force excessively should be brought to justice. The Prime Minister further assured me there would be follow up to the recommendations put forward by the Commission's report in due course.

I am pleased the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission conducted two separate investigations into the uprisings and responses by security forces. And I encourage further moves towards greater independence by this body. My staff has not received permission to travel to the affected regions in order to ascertain the facts of these events for ourselves. This means my Office is unable to corroborate or confirm the findings of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

Although I benefitted greatly from the briefings provided to me by the Attorney General's office, the extremely large number of arrests – over 26,000 – suggests it is unlikely rule of law guarantees have been observed in every case. I believe my staff ought to be given access to the affected areas, and I renew my request, so we can assess the situation and ascertain what further support can be given to the authorities, including justice officials. In the meantime, we will study the latest report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and I hope to return to Ethiopia early next year to assess the progress made on this issue.

I strongly believe economic, social and cultural rights are inseparable from civil and political rights: if one set of rights advances, while another set of rights are not given the requisite attention, the social pressure which may result can be dramatic. I encourage the Government, having invited me to visit, to now ensure a greater investment in a far more substantive, stable and open democratic space for all its people.

As I have said in many countries since taking up this office, failure to uphold fundamental freedoms and rule of law always generates huge cost downstream. Repression of people's voices and rights are damaging to public order; they contribute to tension, mistrust and defiance of the government; despair – and ultimately, this repression may lead to violence. When governments uphold the people's rights to freedom of information, expression, peaceful assembly and association – including their right to demonstrate peacefully in defence of critical views – they are building the foundations of a stronger, more confident society.

Here in Ethiopia, in a landscape of sudden, rapid and impressive economic growth, there appears to be a clear need for a much wider and freer civic space, with broader latitude for the contributions of critical or dissenting views to decision-making. All governments need to be held to the mark by independent media and the vital action of civil society and human rights defenders. I am convinced the Ethiopian government will find its most important and productive investment will be in the rights of the people, which build strong and safe societies.

During the course of my discussions I was told of legislation and policies which seemingly severely restrict rights to freedom of expression, information, association and peaceful assembly, as well as independent human rights monitoring. I am concerned about this series of crucial issues. The Charities and Societies Proclamation, Anti-Terrorism and Mass Media laws, for example, do not appear aligned with relevant international legal norms, and should be reformed. I am also concerned that an excessively broad definition of terrorism may be misused against journalists, bloggers and members of opposition parties. As I have said in many countries, if the fight against terrorism is misused as a pretext to attack perceived dissent, this only feeds grievances and will weaken the State.

I have seen indications the Government is on the cusp of a new understanding of these issues, with clear signs that some positive changes may be underway. Last week the country's second National Human Rights Action Plan was launched, including plans to train police forces, prison officials lawyers, judges and justice personnel in human rights and due process guarantees. New guidelines are being drafted on the permissible use of force by security personnel, a most welcome development. Many major restrictions have been lifted in the context of the continuing state of emergency, and there are indications that all remaining restrictions could be brought to a close at the end of July, when the current extension of the decree of emergency will end. I am informed that work is underway to recommence reporting to the UN's human rights Treaty Bodies.

Other developments suggest a new recognition that civil society organisations are important partners, whose sometimes critical voices may constitute a key means towards better development of institutions and policies. In January, the first-ever National Conference on Peace and Reconciliation gathered more than 500 participants to deliberate on the causes and remedies of the recent unrest, and more broadly on preventing conflicts and maintaining sustainable peace and stability in Ethiopia. 

I urge the authorities to build on these initiatives. I encourage further moves towards broader political dialogue, and underscore that violence, from whatever the source, cannot achieve meaningful progress. My Office is eager to share our decades of expertise in translating human rights norms into actions.

I am requesting the Government to consider, where possible, the release of a number of individuals whose arrest or conviction appears to have been motivated by fear of criticism rather than evidence of intent to spark violent overthrow. I encourage further ratifications of all international human rights treaties and protocols by Ethiopia, and also recommend the expert mandate holders of the UN Human Rights Council's Special Procedures be invited to contribute to the search for tailored solutions to the specificities of this country. I very much look forward to returning to Ethiopia, perhaps as early as next January, to continue our discussions. 

Ultimately, only the Government of Ethiopia can take action to shape the future of this country. At a time of many challenges, including the tragedy of drought, I and my colleagues at the United Nations stand ready to assist Ethiopia. This is a great nation. Its people have exactly the same human rights as all other people around the world. And it is a country with tremendous assets – including, not least, the drive and creativity of its people. If it can build a new momentum in upholding human rights protection, and demonstrating confidence in its people, Ethiopia can shape a strong and cohesive society which truly benefits all. If it stumbles, mistrust and grievance will grow, and this may well have considerable negative impact on prospects for development and for the people's well-being.

Regarding the African Union, I was delighted to engage in several far-reaching discussions with key leaders of change. The AU has become increasingly active in seeking to prevent human rights violations through establishment of its own human rights Special Procedures experts, and by deploying teams to monitor and report on critical and emerging areas of violations. All of us aware that in the current climate, this preventive action by the AU, alone and jointly with the UN, will need to be strengthened and deployed more decisively to prevent the escalation of situations of abuse of authority into full-fledged human rights crises. Moreover, as the AU and UN deepen their partnership, following last month framework agreement to enhance cooperation on peace and security issues, it is essential they strengthen their focus on building human rights as a way to prevent and de-escalate conflict.  

My Office considers it a priority to provide support to the AU as it further develops an effective human rights capacity within AU peace operations, as well as in its work on early warning, mediation, deployment of human rights observers, peacebuilding, prevention of violent extremism and monitoring elections. Our two organisations have agreed to explore an annual dialogue on human rights in the many areas where we share a common vision and sense of urgency, and I look forward to further progress.

I thank everyone for their welcome, and I pay special tribute to my staff.