Ethiopia is a federal republic. A coalition of ethnically based parties known as the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) controlled the government until its successor, the Prosperity Party, was formed in December. In the 2015 general elections, the EPRDF and affiliated parties won all 547 seats in the House of People’s Representatives (parliament) to remain in power for a fifth consecutive five-year term. In February 2018 then prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation to accelerate political reforms in response to demands from the country’s increasingly restive youth. In April 2018 parliament selected Abiy Ahmed Ali as prime minister to lead broad reforms.
Under Prime Minister Abiy, there has been an increased focus on the rule of law. The Federal Police report to the newly created Ministry of Peace as of October 2018 and are subject to parliamentary oversight, but parliament’s capacity to conduct this oversight is limited. Each of the nine regions has a regional, a special police force, or both that report to regional civilian authorities. Local militias operated across the country in loose and varying coordination with these regional police, the Federal Police, and the military. Selected by community leadership, local militias are empowered to handle standard security matters within their communities, primarily in rural areas. It was widely reported that civilian authorities at times did not maintain control over regional security forces. Rural local police and militias sometimes acted independently and extrajudicially. Local government authorities provided select militia members with very basic training. Militia members serve as a bridge between the community and local police by providing information and enforcing rules. When community security was insufficient to maintain law and order, the military played an expanded role with respect to internal security; in particular, setting up military command posts in parts of the country like West and South Oromia, as well as Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ (SNNP) Region.
A number of positive changes in the human rights climate followed Abiy’s assumption of office. The government decriminalized political movements that past administrations had accused of treason, invited opposition leaders to return to the country and resume political activities, allowed peaceful rallies and demonstrations, enabled the formation and unfettered operation of new political parties and media outlets, continued steps to release thousands of political prisoners, and undertook revisions of repressive laws. In recent months, however, the government used the Antiterrorism Proclamation (ATP) to buy time for investigations pertaining to the killing of government officials on June 22. Additionally, humanitarian partners cited the lack of safe, voluntary, and dignified returns of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and their lack of access to those IDPs as major concerns.
Significant human rights issues included: reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces; citizens killing other citizens based on their ethnicity; unexplained disappearances; arbitrary arrest and detention by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; unlawful interference with privacy; censorship, and blocking of the internet and social media sites; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; and child labor, including the worst forms.
The government took steps to prosecute selected members of senior leadership for human rights abuses but decided on a policy of forgiveness for lower-level officials under its broader reconciliation efforts. The government took positive steps toward greater accountability under Abiy to change the relationship between security forces and the population. In August 2018 the federal attorney general filed criminal charges against former Somali regional president Abdi Mohammed Omar and several others relating to criminal conspiracy and armed uprising. The federal attorney general brought charges related to egregious human rights violations and corruption against Getachew Assefa, Assefa Belay, Shishay Leoul, and Atsbaha Gidey, all former officials in the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). On July 16, the Federal High Court ordered the trial to proceed in the absence of the defendants after police were unable to locate the men in the Tigray Region.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including speech and for the press. With the encouragement of Prime Minister Abiy, a number of new and returned diaspora media outlets were able to register and begin operations in the country.
Freedom of Expression: Upon taking office in April 2018, Prime Minister Abiy stated 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 dramatically diminished.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media reported access to private, affordable, independent printing presses was generally limited to a single government-owned facility, which allowed government intimidation. Independent media cited limited access to a printing facility as a major factor in the small number, low circulation, and infrequent publication of news. State media moved toward more balanced reporting during the year, but strong government influence remained evident.
In Addis Ababa eight independent newspapers had a combined weekly circulation of approximately 44,000 copies; there were in addition two sports-focused newspapers. There were no independent newspapers outside the capital. Nine independent weekly, monthly, and bimonthly magazines published in Amharic and English had a combined circulation estimated at 27,000 copies. State-run newspapers had a combined daily circulation of approximately 50,000 copies. Most newspapers were printed on a weekly or biweekly basis, except state-owned Amharic and English dailies and the privately owned Daily Monitor. Government-controlled media closely reflected the views of the government and ruling EPRDF party. The government controlled the only television station that broadcast nationally, which, along with radio, was the primary source of news for much of the population. Two government-owned radio stations covered the entire country, 12 private FM radio stations broadcast in the capital, one FM radio station operated in the Tigray Region, and 49 community radio stations broadcasting in other regions. The state-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation had the largest broadcast range in the country, followed by the Fana Broadcasting Corporation, generally regarded as affiliated with the EPRDF ruling party. There were 31 licensed satellite television stations and 28 radio stations.
The law prohibits political and religious organizations, as well as foreigners from owning broadcast stations.
Violence and Harassment: The government’s arrest, harassment, and prosecution of journalists sharply declined, and imprisoned journalists were released.
On February 23, Oromia regional police detained two journalists from the privately owned online news outlet Mereja Television. Reporter Fasil Aregay and cameraman Habtamu Oda were interviewing individuals displaced by home demolitions when they were detained. Following the detentions, a mob attacked the two journalists in front of the police station in Legetafo.
On July 18, security personnel in Hawassa, the capital of the SNNP Region, arrested Getahun Deguye and Tariku Lemma, managers of the Sidama Media Network, and two board members. Police released one of the board members unconditionally after a few hours while the rest remained detained under allegations they were involved in the July 18 violence in Sidama Zone.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Many private newspapers reported informal editorial control by the government. Examples of government interference included requests regarding specific stories and calls from government officials concerning articles perceived as critical of the government. Private-sector and government journalists routinely practiced self-censorship.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. At times authorities or armed groups limited the ability of humanitarian organizations to operate in areas of insecurity, such as on the country’s borders.
In-country Movement: Throughout the year local media reported various Amhara-Tigray roadblocks operated by civilians, some of which were still in place as of September. While the roadblocks are not state sanctioned, both regional and federal authorities were unable to open the roads for free movement.
Foreign Travel: The government lifted a ban on the travel of workers to Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia and Qatar) as of October 2018, following the signing of bilateral agreements with those countries. The government had instituted the ban in 2013 following reports of abuse and complaints that employment agencies lured its citizens into working abroad in illegal and appalling conditions. The agreements obligate hosting countries to ensure the safety, dignity, and rights of Ethiopian employees. The agreements also grant insurance for the workers and facilitate support from the government’s representatives in the Gulf.
f. Protection of Refugees
As of July the country hosted 655,105 refugees. Major countries of origin were South Sudan (303,733), Somalia (175,961), Eritrea (100,566), and Sudan (50,777).
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government used a refugee-status-determination system for providing services and protection to refugees.
Employment: On January 17, parliament passed a law greatly expanding the rights of refugees hosted in the country. The Refugee Proclamation grants refugees the right to work, access primary education and financial institutions, obtain drivers’ licenses, and register births, marriages, and deaths. The law provides neither guidance on how the right to work will be implemented in practice, nor who will be eligible.
Durable Solutions: The government welcomed refugees to settle in the country but did not offer a path to citizenship or provide integration. Eritrean refugees were the exception, as they are eligible for out-of-camp status if they are sponsored by an Ethiopian citizen to leave the refugee camp. Refugee students who passed the required tests could attend university with fees paid by the government and UNHCR. In June UNHCR, UNICEF, the Ethiopian Vital Events Registration Agency, and the Agency for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) opened the first one-stop-shop in the Bambasi Refugee Camp in Benishangul-Gumuz for refugees to register births, marriages, divorces, and deaths and receive protection referrals and civil documentation in line with the Global Compact on Refugees.
In July UNHCR and ARRA completed a comprehensive Level 3 registration exercise for refugees in the country. The number of recorded refugees decreased as a result from 905,831 to 655,105. Registration was available in Addis Ababa and in all 26 refugee camps. The reasons for the decrease in registered refugees included nomadic lifestyles so they were not present in the camps, removal of double-counted refugees or citizens who registered as refugees during an influx, and some spontaneous returns to South Sudan.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The ruling party’s electoral advantages, however, limited this ability.
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.
Corruption: Corruption, especially the solicitation of bribes, including police and judicial corruption, remained a problem. Some stakeholders believed government officials manipulated the land allocation process and state- or party-owned businesses received preferential access to prime land leases and credit. The law mandates that the attorney general investigate and prosecute corruption cases.
In January 2017 former prime minister Hailemariam announced the establishment of the Corruption Directorate within the Federal Police Commission with powers to investigate systemic corruption cases. The government’s rationale in establishing the investigation bureau was to increase transparency throughout the government bureaucracy. On January 23, Amhara regional police, with the support of federal police, arrested Bereket Simon on corruption charges associated with mismanagement of the Tiret Endowment in his capacity as board chairman. On May 7, the federal attorney general charged former NISS director Getachew Assefa with grand corruption under the Corruption Crimes Proclamation.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires all government officials and employees to register their wealth and personal property. The law includes financial and criminal sanctions for noncompliance. The Federal Ethics and Anticorruption Commission holds financial disclosure records. By law any person who seeks access to these records may make a request in writing; access to information on family assets may be restricted unless the commission deems the disclosure necessary.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
On February 5, parliament approved a heavily revised, and strengthened, CSP (Proclamation No. 1113/2019) commonly referred to as the CSO law. The new law removes restrictions that had severely limited foreign government and private sector funding to any advocacy civil society organization. The law also permits foreign volunteers to work in CSOs for up to one year.
During the year a few domestic human rights groups operated. The resource-challenged HRCO is the country’s sole local, independent human rights group with investigative capabilities. It is a membership-based, nonpartisan, nongovernmental, and not-for-profit entity. It has submitted more than 100 reports since it was formed in 1991. Its reports during the year documented ethnically motivated attacks, clashes, and displacement.
The government was generally distrustful and wary of domestic and international human rights groups and observers, but that attitude and distrust appeared to be changing. State-controlled media were critical of international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch. In August 2018 four local charities and rights organizations launched a new rights group, the Consortium of Ethiopian Rights Organizations, which focuses on advocacy for human rights groups and broader space for rights-advocacy groups to operate.
In July the former diaspora-based rights group, the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa, began operations in the country after registering under the new CSO law. In July the Ethiopian Human Rights Project, previously an offshore rights group, returned to the country and registered as the Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy to work on rights awareness creation, monitoring and advocacy for democratization, and respect of human rights. In January the federal Charities and Societies Agency registered and licensed a newly formed local rights group, Lawyers for Human Rights.
The government denied most NGOs access to federal prisons, police stations, and other places of detention. The government did permit the JPA-PFE to visit prisoners; this organization had an exemption enabling it to raise unlimited funds from foreign sources and to engage in human rights advocacy. Some other NGOs played a positive role in improving prisoners’ chances for clemency.
Authorities limited access of human rights organizations, media, humanitarian agencies, and diplomatic missions in certain geographic areas. The government continued to lack a clear policy on NGO access to sensitive areas, leading regional government officials and military officials frequently to refer requests for NGO access to federal government authorities. Officials required journalists to register before entering sensitive areas and in some cases denied access. There were reports of regional police or local militias blocking NGO access to particular locations, in particular in locations with IDPs, for a specific period, citing security risks.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman has the authority to investigate complaints of administrative mismanagement by executive branch offices and officials, including investigation into prison conditions. The office reported to parliament that it received 853 complaints between July 2018 and January, of which 455 were outside its mandate. It opened investigations into 488 cases and found no administrative mismanagement in 262 of them. The remaining complaints were pending investigation for six months in January. Parliament’s Legal, Justice, and Democracy Affairs Standing Committee rated the performance of the office as unsatisfactory.
The EHRC conducted research on the human rights situation and investigated human rights violations in the Somali and Oromia conflicts, as well as the conflict between West Guji Zone in Oromia and the Gedeo Zone in the SNNP Region. The commission did not publicize the findings of these reports. The EHRC reported its branch office in Jijiga resumed operations in September 2018, one month after a group of youth and regional security forces attacked it during the wide-ranging violence in August 2018.