ADDIS ABEBA – Daniel Bekele (Ph.D.) replaced Addisu Gebregziabher (Ph.D.) as Commissioner of the Ethiopia Human Rights Commission (EHRC) in July. Prior to that, he worked with Amnesty International and then Human Rights Watch (HRW) – the two rights groups that have been the main critics of the human rights situation in Ethiopia for many years.
Now he serves as head of the Commission which his former employer, Amnesty, criticized days before his appointment for operating outside established human rights frameworks and standards when investigating allegations of violations, casting doubts on its methods and findings, an injustice to countless victims of human rights violations that denied them access to effective remedies.
Daniel is now tasked with reforming this state-funded institution. Mhret G/Kristos of The Daily Monitor caught up with the Commissioner to discuss issues regarding the ongoing reform in the country in general and the Commission in particular. Excerpts:
The Monitor: How do you feel taking this position at first and what to expect?
Daniel Bekele: It is an honor to be commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Right Commission. I accepted the responsibility bestowed upon me by parliament as it is a huge responsibility to advance and protect human rights in Ethiopia.
On the bases of a brief assessment in consultation with all stakeholders in the area, I hope in the coming few weeks I would be able to put together a plan on how to reform or restructure the national human rights institution in a way that it is best placed to be able to work in accordance with mandate its established for.
The Monitor: A recent report by Amnesty International says it has a major gap to function as an independent institution and suggests for all its structure to be revised allover. What is your take on that?
Daniel: I welcome the analysis and recommendation done by Amnesty international which would be a useful input at a time when we are looking at a potential reform are and strength of the national human rights commission as an institution in Ethiopia.
I do also agree that there are probably areas of the proclamation, that established the institution, need to be looked at in terms of whether or not they are acceptable based on the international human rights standards.
Such an assessment would lead to a possible amendment of the law establishing the commission. It will also be used as input in any reform we do whether in terms of institutional reform or reform on the way how the commission has been doing its work in the past and in introducing a new way of doing things.
The Monitor: Can you tell us how you want to reform the Commission?
Daniel: Any reform needs to be based on an assessment or a study and looking at global best practices and identifying what the gaps are there in the country.
Broadly speaking, the basic aim of the reform and what needs to be reformed is ensuring the operational and organizational autonomy of the human rights commission.
When I say operational and organization autonomy, I mean the manner by which commissioners of the human right commission are recruited and appointed, the requirements for the position of commissioners, the manner by which the commission is allowed to do its work without any interference from executive branch of the government, the manner by which the commission is sufficiently and adequately resourced with human and financial resource that I needs to be able to do the work.
I would just generally say the reform will be aimed at making the organization an independent, effective human right organization.
The Monitor: how do you see the reformation that has been taking place in the country over for the past year or so?
Daniel: I share the views of many Ethiopians that the political landscape has fundamentally changed since the reformation agenda unfolded by prime minister Abiy. I strongly believe that the Ethiopia we have today is fundamentally different from what Ethiopia was like before.
I believe Ethiopia has embarked upon exciting journey of a fundamental reform process and the reform leaders can legitimately claim a number of credits they have achieved in just less than a year time…. including the release of all political prisoners, the opening up of political space in Ethiopia, peace deal with Eritrea and the reform of a web of repressive laws which has effectively strangled civil society, media, and political space for many years.
But it does not mean that the country is free of challenges. There are some serious challenges. But I remain optimistic that the reform agenda will take root Ethiopia and the country will make progress in consolidating peace, development, democracy, and respect full human rights.
The Monitor: We are now starting to hear some saying the government may go back in some of the reform agendas as part of its attempt to address challenges it’s facing. What is your take on that?
Daniel: Reform is not free of challenges and there is no doubt that the reform agenda has faced some serious challenges. Perhaps the most serious one is the violent conflicts along ethnic-lines which led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands, killing of people, the distraction of properties and humanitarian suffering in that sense is a very sad one.
I suspect the reform agenda will continue to face several challenges. Some of which are products of the type of political rule and political governance and traps of repressive political culture we have had in the past. Some of which might be the reflection of the current state of the Ethiopian economy and some of which is a product of a political crisis.
I am not surprised that the country is passing through such difficult times at this moment. Globally, countries that are striving to make a transition from a repressive form of the political rule into a democratic form of governance experience challenge and the problems are nothing than symptomatic pain of country in transition.
The Monitor: We understand that you have stayed in this office for a short period but can you tell us the major challenges that you are facing in carrying out your job?
Daniel: Sure, there are a lot of challenges that are internal and external. Looking at the broader political context in Ethiopia, I might refer it to a vacuum of law and order in some parts of the country where law enforcement mechanisms appeared to have been weakened.
The law enforcement capacity is not being as effective as it should be in the overall political environment in Ethiopia which is very highly polarized sadly along the ethnic line. The unfortunate situation in abusing social media for hate speech and incitement undervalue the overall status of Ethiopian institutions that yet to be strong and effective. Institutions whether it is the judiciary, the human rights institution or the law enforcement agencies including the police are not as strong as it should be.
All of these present a challenge for the human rights landscape in Ethiopia. All of these are risks that threaten the human rights situation in Ethiopia. But we also have not only the challenge but opportunity created with the new leadership is providing both the legal and political space.
With the new chapter created in Ethiopia, there is an opportunity to change the challenges into lessons and shape the direction of the country in the right trajectory.
The Monitor: What is the special thing you want to do relating to the current situation? you can also add your message to Ethiopians?
Daniel: My special mission to see that we have national human rights institutions genuinely independent, effective and can become the voice of Ethiopian people particularly in the instances where human rights are abused.
One special message I might have whether, for political parties or other civil society organizations, people in the government or outside and most importantly to the people of Ethiopians is to make sure that we don’t squander this opportunity provide for us.
In Ethiopia’s modern history, we have had instances and opportunities were created, but we have seen them being absolutely squandered and Ethiopia remained in terrible political crises including a terrible humanitarian crisis.
Luckily, we are provided with another opportunity yet again, I think it is so important for Ethiopians to use this opportunity thoughtfully to try and keep Ethiopia in the right trajectory.
- Note: This interview was conducted in mid August