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Ethiopia

Executive Summary

Ethiopia is a federal republic. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four ethnically based parties, controlled the government until December 2019 when the coalition dissolved and was replaced by the Prosperity Party. In the 2015 general elections, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front and affiliated parties won all 547 seats in the House of Peoples’ Representatives (parliament) to remain in power for a fifth consecutive five-year term. In 2018 former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation to accelerate political reforms in response to demands from the country’s increasingly restive youth. Parliament then selected Abiy Ahmed Ali as prime minister to lead these reforms. Prime Minister Abiy leads the Prosperity Party.

National and regional police forces are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order, with the Ethiopian National Defense Force sometimes providing internal security support. The Ethiopian Federal Police report to the Ministry of Peace. The Ethiopian National Defense Force reports to the Ministry of National Defense. The regional governments (equivalent to a U.S. state) control regional security forces, which are independent from the federal government. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of all security forces committed some abuses.

Abiy’s assumption of office was followed by positive changes in the human rights climate. The government decriminalized political movements that in the past were accused of treason, invited opposition leaders to return and resume political activities, allowed peaceful rallies and demonstrations, enabled the formation and unfettered operation of political parties and media outlets, and carried out legislative reform of repressive laws. The opening of political space has also met with challenges. Reforms are taking place in an environment with weak institutions including in the security sector. Ethnic tensions increased, resulting in significant violence in some cases. Citizen-on-citizen violence caused the majority of human rights abuses.

On November 4, fighting between the Ethiopian National Defense Forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front Regional Security Force resulted in protracted conflict in the northern Tigray Region and reports of serious and widespread abuses. As of the end of the year, there was very limited access to the majority of Tigray, except for the capital Mekele, resulting in a lack of reporting and making it difficult to ascertain the extent of human rights abuses and violations.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces and private entities; forced disappearances by unnamed armed groups; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious abuses in an internal conflict, including killing of civilians; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including harassment of journalists, and blocking of the internet and social media sites; interference with freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of racial or ethnic minority groups; and existence or use of laws criminalizing same-sex sexual conduct.

The government at times did not take steps to prosecute officials who committed human rights abuses, resulting in impunity for abusers due to a lack of institutional capacity. The government took positive steps toward greater accountability under the Abiy administration to change the relationship between security forces and the public. In June the attorney general’s office and the government-affiliated Ethiopian Human Rights Commission investigated Amnesty International’s allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces. The administration also addressed past reported abuses such as restrictions on freedom of assembly, political prisoners, and interference with privacy. In late August the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and human rights nongovernmental organizations deployed investigators to 40 sites in Oromia Region to probe ethnic-based killings after the June 29 killing of Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa.

There were human rights abuses by paramilitary groups, rebel forces, and youth groups. The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission’s preliminary assessment of the November 9 attack in Mai-Kadra in Tigray concluded that a Tigrayan youth group supported by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front Regional Security Force killed approximately 600 persons. Amnesty International reported that the abuses were carried out by police special forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front Regional Security Force. A local human rights group reported that on June 29 and 30, youth groups attacked the villages of Arsi and Bale Zones in Oromia. The federal police arrested 1,500 regional officials for participation in the violence or failing to prevent the violence following the death of Hachalu Hundessa. The Oromo Liberation Army-Shane, an armed separatist group with factions in western, central, and southern Oromia, killed civilians and government officials.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and the press, and the government generally respected this right. The government generally opened political space (including freedom of speech) which resulted in the proliferation of new media outlets and the return of some diaspora outlets.

On March 23, the government published Proclamation 1185/2020, the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation. Domestic human rights groups criticized the law for using broad legal definitions that could be used to repress freedom of speech. The government applied it in a few cases (See section 2.a., Respect for Civil Liberties–Freedom of Expression–Internet Freedom.).

Freedom of Speech: Upon taking office Prime Minister Abiy stated that freedom of speech was essential to the country’s future. NGOs subsequently reported that practices such as arrests, detention, abuse, and harassment of persons for criticizing the government diminished significantly.

On April 4, Elsabet Kebede was arrested by Addis Ababa police after she had posted the names and ethnicity of persons infected with COVID-19. She was detained for one month and released on bail May 8 without charge.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.

The number of news outlets increased under the Abiy administration. Between January 2019 and October the number of published newspapers increased from six to eight; they were produced in Amharic and English. The number of television channels, which once were a handful of state-controlled broadcasters, rose to 31 mostly independent stations. These stations represented national and regional interests. Radio stations increased from approximately 10 radio stations with national, Addis Ababa, and regional coverage to 14 stations with the same coverage. Community radio stations were also widespread.

The developing media landscape resulted in challenges. The vast expansion of the media environment led to media outlets with untrained reporters. A number of new private stations reflected the political views of their owners. The increase in regional news outlets along with social media influencers amplified messages that led to “echo chambers” which often were biased towards ethnic interests.

Violence and Harassment: Between June 30 and July 6, federal police arrested approximately 12 journalists and camera crewmembers after the killing of Oromo singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa. On July 30, police arrested Kenyan journalist Yassin Juma outside the home of a political opposition leader. On August 20, authorities released Juma on bail after multiple court appearances and prosecution delays.

On November 4, police in Addis Ababa arrested journalist Bekalu Alamrew of the privately owned Awlo Media Center and charged him with false reporting, defaming the government, and inciting ethnic tensions. Alarmew had reported on killings of ethnic Amharas in West Wollega. On November 22, police released Alamrew following a court order. On November 7, police arrested editor Medihane Ekubamichael of the news website Addis Standard and later charged him with “attempts to dismantle the constitution through violence.” Ekubamichael led the website’s reporting on the conflict in Tigray. Ekubamichael remains in custody despite being granted bail.

On July 17, federal police arrested Guyo Wariyo, a journalist affiliated with the Oromia Media Network. On September 1, authorities released Wariyo after a court determined prosecutors had not presented sufficient evidence after multiple court appearances. In July, four additional Oromia Media Network journalists were arrested. As of the end of the year, one remained in custody. On August 5, police also detained two journalists and two camera operators working for Asrat Media on charges of incitement. Although a court granted them bail on September 7, police re-arrested them the next day. On September 19, police released the Asrat Media journalists following court orders.

National Security: The government charged some journalists on national security grounds. On March 26, authorities arrested independent journalist Yayesew Shimelison for reporting on mass graves allegedly prepared for COVID-19-related deaths. On April 23, a court released him on bail. Shimelis was initially charged with terrorism crimes, and then authorities changed his charge to violating the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation. He was released on bail with no final judgment on his case.

Nongovernmental Impact: The OLA-Shane controls an area that was considered a nonpermissive environment for journalists. During the year a handful of journalists accessed the area and were detained by regional security forces accountable to regional presidents.

On January 13, police in Benishangul Gumuz Region arrested a journalist and camera operator working with Amharic Department of Tigray TV in Assosa. Journalist Dawit Kebede and cameraman Behailu Wube had travelled to Assosa to cover a forum for political parties upon the invitation of organizers, according to Tigray TV officials. The communications head of Benishangul Region stated the journalists violated procedures by not notifying the region’s Communications Bureau of their travel. Both were released two days later.

Internet Freedom

The government periodically restricted and disrupted access to the internet and blocked social media sites. From January to March, the government completely shut down the internet in the Wellega and Guji zones of Oromia. As of the end of the year, the Guji Zone of Oromia continued to experience periodic internet shutdowns.

From June 30 to July 23, the government shut down the internet nationally after the killing of Hachalu Hundessa and subsequent civil unrest in Oromia and Addis Ababa. On July 15, internet access was partially restored in Addis Ababa and on July 23, restored nationwide.

On November 4, telephone, cell phone, and internet services were shut down in the Tigray Region and as of December 31, the internet was still down, although telephone services improved throughout the region.

The Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation addresses hate speech in social media. The law prohibits dissemination of hate speech or disinformation through broadcasting, print, or social media using text, image, audio, or video. Conviction of a crime described under the law is punishable with imprisonment for no more than two years or a substantial monetary fine. A person convicted of violating the misinformation law may face no more than one year in prison or a substantial monetary fine. If their action results in a person or group being attacked due to hate speech, the punishment for conviction may be between one year and five years of incarceration. If a person is convicted of hate speech or disinformation via broadcasting services, print media, or a social media account of more than 5,000 followers, the violator faces one to three years in prison or a substantial monetary fine. There was one case pending under this law at year’s end.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption. The government did not implement the law effectively or comprehensively. The government enacted new policies to hold government officials more accountable. There were isolated reports of government corruption. Officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

On August 18, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and the Ethiopian Financial Intelligence Center signed a Memorandum of Understanding to increase coordination by allowing the two agencies to better identify money laundering, terrorism financing, and other financial crimes that support corruption.

On April 7, the country enacted the 2020 Federal Administrative Procedure Proclamation (APP). This is the country’s first law to allow ordinary citizens to appeal to the federal courts to review the legality of federal agency actions, decisions, and rules. The APP is intended to advance federal agencies’ transparency and accountability by allowing citizens seeking administrative redress to file suits in federal courts against federal agencies if those agencies fail in their core missions. Citizens may seek monetary compensation in addition to asking agencies to comply with the law.

Corruption: In late September federal police arrested Ministry of Education officials Mekonnen Addis, Eshetu Asfaw, Taye Mengistu, and Nigusse Beyene for corrupt procurement resulting in a loss of 280 million birr ($7 million) and the production of books not meeting the requirements of the bidding contract. Police confiscated foreign and local currency from the houses of these four members of the bidding committee. Police also blocked bank accounts of the relatives of the four individuals.

The government also continued to prosecute the former director general of the state-owned Metal and Engineering Corporation, Kinfe Dagnew, who was arrested in 2018. Prosecutors and investigators uncovered suspicious procurement practices involving more than 80 billion birr ($2 billion). In January 2019 Kinfe was charged with four counts of corruption at the Lideta High Court in Addis Ababa. The trial continued at year’s end.

Financial Disclosure: The country’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission strengthened their anticorruption policies and enforcement by creating a process for civil servants to report their assets. Before August the commission focused its training on top officials and expanded its training to make staff familiar with the reporting guidelines. By August 24, the majority of legislators registered and declared their assets to the commission. On August 28, the commission sent police a list of 184 federal and Addis Ababa government officials who failed to register their assets and who could face criminal charges.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, conducting investigations and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. The civil society organization (CSO) sector continued to expand, with more CSOs registering to establish themselves. The capacity of domestic human rights organizations remained a challenge. Legal reforms in 2019 supported the development of domestic CSOs. The law permits foreign volunteers to work at CSOs for up to one year.

International human rights groups were allowed to travel within the country to investigate and report but received a tepid reception from the government. Multiple international human rights groups produced reports regarding the violence after the killing of the singer and activist Hachalu Hundessa. These reports claimed that security forces targeted Oromo civilians; one report provided a video online illustrating the violence. On August 18, the attorney general responded that the international community gave “no regard to the complex and volatile political and security situation in the country.” In May, Amnesty International published a report on human rights abuses allegedly committed in 2019 by government security forces in parts of Oromia and Amhara regions. Amnesty International condemned the government’s poor response to the displacement of thousands in 2019. Officials of the Amhara and Oromia regions labelled the report as biased and unbalanced, stating that it left out atrocities committed by armed groups operating in these areas. On June 1, Attorney General Adanech Abiebie stated on her Twitter page that the government had started its own investigation of the incidents detailed in the Amnesty report.

Authorities limited the access of human rights organizations, media, humanitarian agencies, and diplomatic missions in certain geographic areas. These areas were experiencing open conflict between the armed separatist OLA-Shane and government security services (see section 2.a., Respect for Civil Liberties–Freedom of Expression–Nongovernmental Impact).

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman has the authority to investigate complaints regarding administrative mismanagement by executive branch offices and officials, and to investigate prison conditions. In 2019 parliament approved a proclamation establishing the Ombudsman Institution, and repealing the prior proclamation in effect since 2000. The proclamation gives foreign nationals the right to present administrative complaints or rights abuse cases to the office.

The EHRC is an independent government agency responsible for investigating and reporting on the country’s human rights. Parliament created the EHRC in 2000, and parliament continued to fund and oversee the commission. New legislation was passed to give it more independence (see section 1.e., Respect for the Integrity of the Person–Denial of Fair Public Trial–Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies). In June parliament voted to give the EHRC the jurisdiction to observe elections and monitor human rights during the COVID-19 State of Emergency. In July parliament passed a law requiring that EHRC senior staff be funded as full-time employees. The EHRC investigated human rights abuses in more than 40 locations. The EHRC did not face adverse action from the government despite criticizing the government in late September for disregarding the rule of law and abusing human rights regarding the detention of Lidetu Ayelew. The EHRC also criticized government for human rights abuses committee by authorities during the COVID-19 State of Emergency in April.

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