On 25 July, the European Union adopted its strategic framework on human rights and democracy and appointed Stavros Lambrinidis its first special representative for human rights, seeking to "enhance the effectiveness and visibility of EU human rights policy”. It’s now time to translate policy into action. Ethiopia is a prime example, with its deteriorating human rights record. The recent death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose leadership was characterised by cracking down on dissidents and dismantling the independent media, provides the EU with an excellent opportunity to change its policy on Ethiopia.
What should the EU do? First, it is inconsistent for it to prioritise the UN’s millennium development goals, which target poverty, while ignoring Ethiopia’s widespread violations of civil and political rights. At a joint hearing of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and Subcommittee on Human Rights, Baroness Ashton’s External Action Service didn’t rise to the human rights challenge. Under Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister, this EU policy has completely failed to improve the country’s human rights record, which has taken a turn for the worse over the past seven years.
Restrictions on freedom of expression and association have severely limited Ethiopians’ ability to scrutinise their country’s human rights performance. A climate of silence and impunity are the norm. Torture, arbitrary detention and forced eviction are widespread and seriously under-reported. Those who commit the violations are rarely held to account and victims of violations seldom receive support.
In 2009 Ethiopia passed a charities and societies proclamation, which dramatically curbs human rights work. Its measures include preventing NGOs which work on these issues from receiving more than ten percent of their funding from abroad. It also establishes a government agency with broad powers over NGOs, including surveillance and direct involvement in their running.
The law has devastated human rights work, through practical obstacles and by exacerbating a climate of fear. Many fled the country when the law was passed. Those who continue to work on the issue have been forced to reduce their operations. There are now almost no domestic human rights organisations to monitor violations.
Freedom of expression in Ethiopia also suffered a sustained attack in Ethiopia last year. While members of the independent media have long been targeted, in 2011 and 2012 the pretext of ‘counter-terrorism’ has been used to silence dissenting media voices. Over this time, more than 100 journalists and members of the political opposition have been arrested and prosecuted for terrorism and other offences, including treason, and exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association. Their ‘offences’ included writing articles criticising the government and reporting on peaceful protests.
It’s time for the EU to act on its commitment to "place human rights at the centre of its relations with all third countries". Ethiopia is a potential litmus test. It should protest more vocally against Ethiopia’s continuing human rights violations. It should urge the government to allow human rights organisations and independent journalists to defend human rights and remove restrictions on press freedom, freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Ethiopians deserve strong advocates. And the EU must be one of them.