Ethiopia: Human Rights Leadership at the UN Security Council Requires Human Rights at Home

July 27, 2016

Ethiopia human rights protest
Protesters call on the Ethiopian government to respect human rights, Washington DC, USA, 23 September 2006

By Adotei Akwei and Nicole Southard

On June 29, 2016 Ethiopia secured a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) (see the full report here). The position requires that countries garner at least a two-thirds vote to win the position, and Ethiopia ran without competition, resulting in a win of 183 out of 195 necessary votes.

This is Ethiopia’s third stint on the UNSC and in a congratulatory message, Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Tedros Adhanom, said the election is a clear indication that the country has won the respect and trust of the world. However, critics are concerned for what Ethiopia’s ascent into the UNSC (while already part of the UN Human Rights Council) could mean for human rights and justice in the region. Human Rights Watch publication.

The ruling government in Ethiopia has a persistent history of violent repression of independent media, civil society organizations and political opposition. The government enacted many restrictive laws that have led to the dismantling of civil society, and through the misuse of the counter-terrorism law, has stifled peaceful dissent. At the same time, human rights organizations have documented arbitrary arrests, torture, injuries to thousands and the deaths of over 400 people as a result of the government’s crackdown in the Oromia region going back to 2014.

In response, the international community, including both the European Union Parliament  as well as U.S. Congress, have issued statements of concern. The Senate is considering a resolution condemning the violence provoked by the Ethiopian government against the Oromo protesters and on the deteriorating human rights context, and the House of Representatives is expected to follow suite. As such, the election of Ethiopia to the UNSC has resurfaced serious concerns and will put the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in the global spotlight regarding the actions it takes at the United Nations as well its performance at home.

It is probably naiveté to expect countries with poor human rights records to be barred from being elected to the UNSC or call for them to be removed  once elected. Many countries under the rule of authoritarian regimes have been voted non-permanent member of the UN Security Council: one example is Spain under General Franco won a seat from 1969-1971. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) under Mobutu was elected and served twice (1982 – 1983, 1990 – 1991).

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19:  Members of the United Nations Security Council hold a meeting on the situation concerning Iraq on September 19, 2014 at UN headquarters in New York City.  Secretary Kerry attended the Council for supporting the new Iraqi government and the Iraqi people.   (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
 (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)

A case can be made that by admitting countries that are systematically committing human rights abuses without any preconditions, the United Nations is eroding the values and mission for which it was established. Today in Ethiopia journalists are languishing in jail for exercising their rights, while peaceful protestors are getting killed for exercising theirs. Another concern that has been raised is that by becoming a member of the UNSC, the Ethiopian government has the opportunity to lobby countries to refrain from criticizing the country for its poor human rights records as opposed to improving it.

Ethiopia’s election to the UNSC also represents an opportunity: while the current Ethiopian regime and its predecessor under the late Meles Zenawi have been authoritarian at home and often have not listened to their own people, they have also had a record of participation in multilateral activities. The country’s role in sending peacekeepers in collaboration with the African Union and the United Nations can be mentioned as a prominent example. The country also chairs the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and has played a central role in mediating conflicts throughout the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has the opportunity to demonstrate that “African solutions for African problems” really is a promise that can deliver in the field of peace and security policy.

To be effective, however, the government must be a consistent leader on key human rights issues throughout Africa — something which will first require widespread and meaningful human rights reforms at home. Specifically, Ethiopia must cooperate fully with UN special mechanisms, especially the rapporteurs on peaceful assembly and torture, to further investigate the human rights abuses occurring domestically, and beyond that, to take concrete steps to reform and end practices that have eroded human rights in the country.

This past week the Ethiopian government temporarily shut down Internet access and subsequently banned the use of all social media sites amidst fears that the national exam would be leaked. Ironically this action follows an announcement made last week by the UN Human Rights Council that it is a “violation of international human rights law” for a government to intentionally withhold access to the Internet. Ethiopia is a member of this Council, and its actions thus far expose the excessive measures which the government will take to maintain unequivocal control over communication in the region — a clear violation of freedom of expression.

As Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie said to the UN in 1963, “The Charter of the United Nations expresses the noblest aspirations of man”, yet “these, too, are only words; their value depends wholly on our will to observe and honor them and give them content and meaning.” With these words in mind, how the current Ethiopian government may choose to fulfill the aspirations of the UN Charter will best be demonstrated by its actions in the coming years.