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Ethiopia: Open letter on reform agenda and the need to address systemic human rights issues

To H.E. Dr. Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia

Open letter on Ethiopia’s reform agenda and the need to address Ethiopia’s systemic human rights issues


DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) congratulates you on your appointment as Prime Minister of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia. DefendDefenders is a regional civil society organisation established in 2005 that seeks to strengthen the work of human rights def­enders throughout the East and Horn of Africa. We consistently engage in advocacy at the African Union and United Nations levels, through sharing our analysis of human rights developments in the sub-region and on specific countries, including Ethiopia. We meet with stakeholders to make recom­mendations on how to address human rights violations and abuses and ensure respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

We welcome the proposed reforms by your administration in favour of greater respect for Ethiopians’ fundamental rights and free­doms, accountability for past and ongoing human rights violations and abuses, security sector reform, and inclusive political dialo­gue and reconciliation. We also applaud the initial steps undertaken, such as the release of political prisoners, the closing of detention centres, the lifting of the State of Emer­gency, the replacement of high-level officials sus­pec­ted of human rights violations, reconciliation and settlement of the border issue with Eritrea, and the establish­ment of a committee tasked with reviewing laws, including the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Civil Society Proclamation, as well as the justice system as a whole.

These steps are essential to address some of Ethiopia’s most significant human rights issues, including at the legislative, policy, and practical levels. Most importantly, perhaps, the reform agenda the Govern­ment has engaged in sends a powerful signal to all Ethiopians that their rights matter and that the State is ready to take responsibility for their protection. DefendDefenders commends you for showing leader­ship in this regard.

We would like to bring some of the systemic human rights issues facing the country to your attention. We believe that it is essential to address these issues to ensure full respect for Ethiopian ci­ti­zens’ rights and prevent any risk of backsliding on what has been, or is about to be, achieved by your administration.


Fighting impunity for past and ongoing human rights violations and abuses is a key systemic issue, which has long been unaddressed.

Accountability needs not always be of a criminal nature. It can include admini­stra­tive, hierarchical, and criminal sanctions, but also reparation in the form of apologies, financial compensation and/or reha­bi­litation, truth-telling, reconciliation, guarantees of non-recurrence (inclu­ding through reforms), security sector reform, the institution of a vetting system in, and provision of training to, security and law enforcement officials.

We encourage your administration to look at all of these avenues, keeping in mind that grave crimes should not be the object of any amnesty and that perpetrators should be held accountable. Ethiopia’s federal and regional security and law enforcement forces should immediately stop using excessive, and in some instances lethal, force against peaceful protesters. These forces should be trained in the proper management of public assemblies, and those responsible for killings should be held to account in fair trials. Victims, and all Ethiopian citizens, deserve it.


Free and fair elections, enabled by an environment of open and healthy debate and a level playing field for all candidates and parties, are essential to consolidate the initial human rights reforms your admi­nistration has taken. Greater respect for human rights will, in turn, provide the best guarantee for free and fair elections, and the stability of Ethiopia. In this regard, we call for a review of the Electoral Law and of the composition of the Electoral Commission in order to create that level playing field and conditions conducive to credible elections.

Civic space

An open and free civic space provides the basis for a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders, civil society organisations, journalists and other independent voices.

Freedoms of opinion and expression, including for the media, peaceful assembly and association are pillars of a democratic society, without which no meaningful debate can take place, including over economic, social and cultural rights, social and economic policies, and salient issues affecting live­li­hoods, such as land use and land tenure for some of the most vulnerable members and groups of Ethio­pian society. These freedoms must be ensured to provide the foundation for long-lasting social peace, prosperity, and stability.

In this regard, the following pieces of legislation and institutions should be amended with a view to creating a safe and enabling environment for civil society, and bringing them in line with international human rights standards:

  • The Civil Society Proclamation (No. 621/2009), including its provisions restricting funding of civil society organisations, citizenship and nationality restrictions;
  • Regulation No. 168/2009 on the regulations and its related directives of the civil society;
  • The mandate and powers of the Charities and Societies Agency;
  • Proclamation No. 3 (1991) on peaceful assembly, in particular to ensure that the notification system for public gatherings set out by the Constitution is not turned into an authorisation system in prac­tice;
  • Media-related laws, in particular provisions that enable censorship, restrict ownership of media houses and residency of media outlet owners, and criminalise defamation;

Lastly, to promote transparency and access to information, all laws, regulations, and ratified inter­natio­nal treaties, should be published and made available to the public at no cost.

Openness and cooperation

We welcome the engagement of Ethiopian authorities with bilateral, regional, and international actors, including during the visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, to Addis Ababa in April 2018 and at the UN Human Rights Council in June 2018. Ethiopia could play a positive role within international fora such as the Council by sharing its experience and promoting re­forms regarding the creation and maintenance of a safe and enabling environment for civil society, inc­lusive political dialogue, and systemic human rights reform.

We encourage your administration to continue strengthening its engagement with regional and inter­national UN human rights bodies and mechanisms, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and its mechanisms, the abovementioned Council, the special procedures established by the Council, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), treaty monitoring bodies, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). To lead by example, your Govern­ment could extend a standing invitation to all special procedure mandate-holders and invite, among others, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, the Special Rapporteur on freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association, the Working Group on arbitrary detention, and the Special Rapporteur on torture to visit the country. Ethiopia’s upcoming examination under the Uni­ver­sal Periodic Review (UPR) process in May 2019 is a prime opportunity for your administration to have an open and frank appraisal of the situation of human rights in Ethiopia and to make firm commitments toward institutionalising progressive reforms.

We also encourage all stakeholders, including multilateral bodies and bilateral partners, to support Ethi­opia’s reform agenda, including by providing the authorities with technical assistance and capacity-building as requested.

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We commend you and your administration for the reforms undertaken since your appointment as Prime Minister and encourage you to pursue Ethiopia’s reform agenda in a consultative, inclusive and trans­parent manner, taking into account the views of the opposition, civil society, other independent actors, and Ethiopian citizens at large.

I hope that this letter can serve as a basis for a constructive dialogue on human rights issues and would welcome an opportunity to discuss them with you in person at a convenient time.


Hassan Shire

Executive Director, DefendDefenders
Chairperson, Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network
Steering Committee Member, World Movement for Democracy