Rocks of Hope: Interrogating PM DR Abiy Ahmed’s Reform within the Boomerang Model of Human Rights

As I write this term paper, stream of demonstrations across Ethiopia has continued owing to human rights violations. Human rights and social movements have constitutive relationship. An Ethiopian scholar of human rights focuses on policy outcomes and legal decisions. Scholarship that examines this link in Ethiopia is relatively slow to develop.

Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPDRF) has been attempting to silence social movements. There have been brutal crackdowns. The crackdown on people’s social movement resulted in further resistance. At this stage, the regime is giving locus for dissident voices and we are experiencing glimmer of hope for human rights protection is taking its resonance.  Hitherto, rapid pace of reform is taking place since the appointment of Prime Minister (PM) DR Abiy Ahmed as of April 2, 2018.

Rocks of hope are an engagement citizens have been taking for protection of human rights in Ethiopia. It represents a struggle for justice in the face of injustice.  It represents those who fought for equality in the face of inequality. It connotes optimism followed the reform. These are values of legitimate struggle. Values of legitimate struggle are terse in the Constitution of Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, the Constitution herein after. Under the 7th paragraph of the Preamble of the Constitution, it is provided that the common struggle of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples has brought the peace and the prospects of democratic order of the country.

In human rights language, Boomerang Model is the strategy of identifying human rights violations someplace and then generating attention in order to bring pressure to bear on the perpetrators back in the country of concern. Repressive regimes may be subject to internal and external pressures to conform with human rights norms. In response, they may consider concessions to secure trade advantages, or because they have been ashamed for not conforming to the standards of the international community.

The theme of this term paper is interrogating the reform within the Boomerang Model. It deals with the resistance paid to bring the reform and the responses and steps taken. The pace of reform will be assessed in terms of the ramifications it has on human rights protection. It ends with conclusion and recommendation.


1. Paradox: Commitment to and Crackdown on Human Rights

1.1. Commitment to Human Rights

Ethiopia has ratified major international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights, the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ethiopia has additionally ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

All ratified treaties are an integral part of the law of the land. Ethiopia’s commitment to human rights is reflected in constitutional provisions. The Constitution imposes a responsibility to the respect and enforcement of fundamental rights and freedoms at all levels. The Constitution also establishes separate procedures for the amendment of the human rights.

1.2. Crackdown on Human Rights

The enforcement of human rights is undelivered as promised. This is evident since 2015. In November 2015 protests started openly in Oromia. Protesters initially focused their concerns on the Federal Government’s approach to development, the proposed Addis Ababa Master Plan. Protesters feared that the Master Plan would further displace Oromo farmers, many of whom have been displaced for development projects. The open protest was erupted on November 12, 2015, in Ginchi, southwest of Addis Ababa. The protest expanded to other parts of the country including in Gondar, Amhara.

Amid the protest, the government started taking measures of brutality. Security forces shot into crowds, summarily killing people during mass roundups and torturing detained protesters. Security forces arbitrarily arrested students, teachers, musicians, opposition politicians, health workers and even people who provided assistance or shelter to fleeing protestors. Many of the scales of the measures are unprecedented in the communities. The brutality exerted on students is exemplary. Jamal, 19 years old and grade 9 student testified to Human Rights Watch that he and three others were taken to a graveyard where they were beaten with a whip:

“You are terrorists, you are trying to mislead students and create insecurity,” the soldiers said to us. Another man was hung upside down by his ankles from a chain hanging from a tree and beaten with a stick. Blood was dripping from his head and he was unconscious. The rest of us were then taken back to the police station. We don’t know what happened to that other boy. We never saw him again.

The Ethiopian government has characterized the protesters as violent. While the protesters provide they were peaceful, the government’s agents involved in the protest were disordering the peaceful demonstrations.

There were agents in our protest throwing stones. They are known to be working for the local government in the intelligence services. They were throwing stones at a Tigrayan-owned hotel. We did not want this; we all wanted the protests to be peaceful. So we grabbed them and handed them to police but police would not take them and arrested us instead. I spent three weeks in detention as a result.

Worthy to mention is Peaceful Demonstration and Public Political Meeting Procedure Proclamation practically requires permits for demonstrations. Most of the protests were spontaneous in nature; the protests in many locations suggest that permits were unlikely.


2. Legitimate Struggle within the Ethiopian Legal System

Legitimate struggle is the conceptual and historical counterpart and the ultimate guarantor of human rights. Human rights are the flipside of the coin of legitimate struggle. It is this connection that makes human rights a force to be reckoned with around the world.

The concept of legitimate struggle is replicable in the Constitution. Firstly, building a political community founded on the rule of law and capable of ensuring a lasting peace, guaranteeing a democratic order and advancing our economic and social development is believed to be in the full and free exercise of the right to self-determination. Secondly, it elucidates that to live as one economic community is necessary in order to create sustainable and mutually supportive conditions for ensuring respect for our rights and freedoms and for the collective promotion of our interests. Thirdly, it provides that determined to consolidate, as a lasting legacy, the peace and the prospect of a democratic order which their struggles and sacrifices have brought about.


3. Legitimacy of the Struggle that Brought the Appointment

The majority of the nation believes that the appointment of DR Abiy Ahmed and the coming of et al President (of Amhara) Gedu Andargachew to the frontline is the result of people’s struggle. The reformist team is also known as Lemma’s team; Lemma Megersa is the President of Oromia.

Legitimacy of the appointment and the reform is in the pace of the reform the reform. Almost all of political prisoners are released. Institutional and legal reforms are taking place. Violators, ipso facto, are arrested and investigation is ahead to be held accountable.


4. Interrogating the Reform within the Boomerang Model

4.1. Stages of Boomerang and Response to Human Rights Violations

Under this sub topic, stages of the model and instances of responses the Ethiopian government has been adducing will be discussed. It starts from the chapeau of Boomerang pattern.

By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse.

The above quote from the world report by Human Rights Watch summarizes what Keck and Sikkink have called the Boomerang Model. They formulated Boomerang Model as model of activism for human rights protection.  Their work asserts that networks shape state and their politics in at least five ways:

(1) by framing debates and getting issues on the agenda; (2) by encouraging discursive commitments from states and other policy actors; (3) by causing procedural change at the international and domestic level; (4) by affecting policy; and (5) by influencing behavior changes in target actors.

Governments which violate human rights may be subject to internal and external pressures to conform with human rights standards.  They may respond to these pressures from instrumental motives. The function of the boomerang relies on central tactics: information politics (providing information about problems to audiences), symbolic politics (using symbols to impress publics), leverage politics (putting pressure on governments) and accountability politics (naming and shaming).

The model has five stages.  The stages and the faces of the reform, their interplay, are assessed.

In stage 1, state repression motivates local non-state actors to reach out to potential allies in the hope that they would pressure the state to fulfill its obligations on human rights. This stage goes hand in hand with the aspect of genuine repressive steps in Ethiopia. EPDRF has frequently sought to prevent news of human rights violations from leaking out. Local news medium were closed. Struggle focused abroad news streams such as Oromia Media Network and Ethiopian Satellite Television were jammed on protest basis.  News about human rights violation could not be contained: media and other forums have exposed it.

In stage 2, repressive states deny the charges against them. The spread of information about human rights violation is necessary for activation of a human rights response. The move to denial stage in Ethiopia can be expressed in three ways. First, the government has been denying the existence of human rights violation. Second, the government has been tagging the dissenters as terrorists to justify violations. Third, the government has been denying that external pressure is legitimate. We can recall the HR-128 Resolution of US, calling on to lift the state of emergency among others. The government described the resolution as untimely, inappropriate and disrespectful. While the resolution could push the reform forward, disregarding it constitutes denial.

In stage 3, clear evidence of noncompliance and a threat of social or material sanctions, leads the target states to make tactical concessions. Concessions include stronger rhetorical commitment to human rights norms, space for grassroots mobilization and leniency toward high-profile dissidents or independent media. EPDRF has been vowing in creating pseudo space for internal pressure groups to bring about further change. In the same vein, the party has been releasing political dissents for tactical concessions.

In stage 4, international norms acquire prescriptive status. As states accept the norms’ validity, they entrapped in a new rhetoric, setting in motion political processes of adaptation. The Ethiopian government accepted human rights as legitimate, capitulation per se.  The government implements them imperfectly. To date, release of prisoners is daily ritual. However, they are released in a manner incompatible with the ibis jus ibis remedis. They are released in way they could not claim remedies for arbitrary detention, torture and rape among others. In particular, based on the condition they are released, claim of damage is not feasible. Yet, the new step taken to arrest and indict perpetrators, ipso facto, of human rights is paradoxically significant.

In stage 5, states move toward norm-consistent behavior. The reform may not necessarily lead towards implementation of human rights. Government may ignore international pressure and seek to stamp out internal resistance. If they make some concessions to such pressures, they may return to repression when the pressures relax.


4.2. Sequence of the Reform and Its Ramifications

The sequence of reform in Ethiopia since April 2, 2018 is telling. The reform has introduced paces:

  • On June 5, 2018 the state of emergency was lifted.
  • Release of thousands of prisoners was ordered.
  • Allowed dissidents to return to home.
  • Unblocked hundreds of websites and television channels.
  • On October 16, women are appointed to half of the ministerial posts.
  • Few former loyal officials of the regime alleged of practicing torture and other massive human rights violations are arrested and others are under list of arrest order.

The reform is still in the air. DR Abiy is quoted as he saying:

We have only one option and that is to be united, not only cooperating and helping each other but uniting in order to live together. The other option is to kill each other. However, no sane person will opt for this. So, our option should be trust one another, heal our wounds together and work together to develop our country.

The reform is optimistic for protection of human rights. Releases of political prisoners, freedom of press, promise to end forced disappearances, accountability for the committed abuses and an end to torture are positive if happened to continue. It appears draconian laws such as the Charities and Societies Proclamation, the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and Media Law would be amended. Advisory Council is instituted under the Federal Attorney General to propose amendments to these repressive laws. Importantly, activists and journalists, some of whom had been victims of these laws, were able to participate and air their views.                  

5. Frameworks Dealing with the Past

At the core of Boomerang Model, in human rights violation, the existence of victims and violators represents repressive regimes. It is laudable to see frameworks dealing with violators-victims vendettas.

One is the right to know the truth. To fulfill the right to know, establishing truth and reconciliation commission is significant. The commission will be the one dealing with investigation of human rights violations and recommending how to effectively redress the victims and preserve evidences. Documentation and making archives for future reference and inclusion of what happened during massive human rights violation is another facet of the right to know the truth.

Another framework dealing with the past is the right to justice. When there is justice, there is peace. On the other side, the government is pursuing on peace at the cost of justice. Civil law suits for reparation and criminal prosecution for crimes are measures of the right to justice.

On June 18, 2018 PM Abiy Ahmed has acknowledged the existence of massive human rights violation when he said the government has terrorized its own citizens and admitted the practices of extrajudicial killings and tortures by state agents. Indeed, the Attorney General has started arresting the perpetrators. DR Abiy, above all, aspires for informal apology. Dealing with the past should involve continues process of learning from the experience; supporting the victims, respecting rule of law, ending impunity and preventing further human rights violations.

Conclusion and Recommendation

In this term paper, the Boomerang Model is used as framework to interrogate human rights situations and state’s behavior in Ethiopia. Human rights and social movements have constitutive relationships. Many social movements have promoted human rights causes in Ethiopia. Collective mobilizations challenging torture, discrimination and other repressive practices have played critical roles.  

Ethiopia has ratified significant core human rights treaties. However, this is not followed by radical changes in state behaviour. There was no necessary progress towards implementation of human rights. The government has ignored pressure and seek to stamp out internal resistance.

Since the appointment of PM DR Abiy Ahmed as of April 2, 2018, the pace of reform reveals pillars of optimistic position. The reform taken by the regime, for the following reasons, is not self-fulfilling prophesy. Firstly, reform is believed to be the result of resistance the whole nation exerted against the brutal practices of the regime. Secondly, the reform started serving justice for the victims of human rights violations. Thirdly, the division within the regime and reshuffle of positions is another hope for the better protection of human rights. Fourthly, language of human rights is becoming a vocabulary of the reformist wing. Fifthly, the reform is thought to be sustained and be defended; it may return to repression when the pressures relax.

Therefore, it is the recommendation of this term paper that:

  • The government should reinforce rule of law. This includes amending repressive laws, establishing the truth and reconciliation commission and redressing the victims.
  • Ensure good faith and compliance with human rights standards is enforced. This starts from domesticating treaties and ratifying the protocols.
  • We all work as force of reform to wan the historical and institutional dominance of resistance to the reform.
  • Following these recommendations, the reform needs to be institutionalized so that it would not be shake and the nation would have sense of security.

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