Today’s edition of The Ethiopian Herald presents myriads of issues revolving around human rights, rule of law, undertakings in due course of election and other related aspects accentuated by Dan Yirga, Acting Executive Director of Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO). The paper had a stay with the director.
Dan Yirga was born and brought up in Addis Ababa, Kolfe Keranio Sub City. He attended his primary education at the nearby Keranio Medihanealem Elementary School and high school education at Ayer Tena Secondary School. Then he joined law faculty at Addis Ababa University and received undergraduate degree in law (LLB). He continued his post graduate study at the same university and obtained his MA in human rights.
Graduating from the university, he joined the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) first as a membership and then as a volunteer worker. The incident initiated him to join the council was an article that defends human rights violation in relation to the 2005 national election in Ethiopia.
He was surprised with the article that was released by an institution advocating human rights in Ethiopia. He then started job at the institution, EHRCO, as a junior human rights investigator and monitor using the job opportunity available at the institution. Now, Dan is working as an Acting Executive Director of EHRCO.
What was the objective of the establishment of Ethiopian human rights council (EHRCO) and when was it set up?
EHRCO was established in 1992 holding three inseparable objectives: to intensify the respect of human rights in Ethiopia, to ensure the rule of the law and to build a democratic culture in our country.
Established for the achievement of these three objectives, the institution has been working for the past 28 years. In my part, I have been contributing my share in the institution for over 13 years since I joined it.
In order to achieve the three objectives, EHRC has many activities. For instance, it investigates human rights violations, follows up and reports for the stakeholders with relevant evidences. In addition, it provides the concerned bodies with awareness creation trainings to help them defend extra human rights violation. The training is provided for the police, judges, attorneys and people represent different community sects. It also conducts researches, carries out advocacy works, and provides free legal aid. These activities enables EHRCO achieve the three objectives.
It is inevitable that any institution encounters challenges in due course of running activities. What were the challenges your institution has faced along this line?
Frankly speaking, Ethiopian human rights council has faced many challenges during these acting periods. An institution established to defend human rights, encounter challenges not only in our country where many processes are at the beginning stage, but in European countries and America which have civilized system in respecting human rights.
So, when we come to our country, though the degree varies, many challenges have been facing the institution. For instance, our workers had been arrested and beaten; and our members had been under pressure especially from the security forces.
Even some have lost their lives like Assefa Maru, member of the executive committee of the EHRCO. Many others were killed by the security forces, too. Not only this, as a result of the pressure, some have even fled the country who are now working at the higher positions in regional and international human rights institutions.
In order to mention some challenges after I joined the institution, Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 621/2009 was the hardest one and it had been a serious obstacle to the promotion and protection of human rights in Ethiopia.
Prior to the issuance of this proclamation, our institution had about 11 branch offices throughout the country, but following the enactment of the proclamation, we were forced to shrink our branches since the proclamation restricted raising more than ten percent of your income from foreign sources to local CSOs. The proclamation forced us to raise 90 percent of our income from local sources.
It is obvious that fulfilling 90 percent of the institution’s budget from local fund raising was very difficult because of lack of awareness among the public and the living standard of the citizenry which is barely adequate to meet ends. It is because of the restriction of this proclamation that we were forced to diminish branch offices to three from previous 11 and reduce the number of our workers to 14 from previous 66 just to keep the council afloat as we were unable to pay salaries. We were forced to cease many of our activities as well. We used to conduct vast advocacy works and researches.
Moreover, just the next morning to the issuance of the proclamation, our money in the bank was frozen. It was around 9 million Birr. To be frank, it was a great obstacle to our activities; we couldn’t pay salary and buy stationary materials. As a result, we were providing free service for several months to those who need our supports.
Passing through all these challenges, your institution is acting now. What is the current status of your institution in terms of finance, defending human rights and the right to organize following the enactment of the new Civil Societies Proclamation 1113/2019?
This is very interesting question. I can say things are improving as it opened a new chapter somehow. The new proclamation is quite opposite to the previous one by giving us more space. The first and the basic one is we regained our name. Our name was changed to only Human Rights Council excluding ‘Ethiopian’ because of the restriction of the previous proclamation; it barred CSOs that have representations from less than five States to be called so. We are now acting in our original name Ethiopian Human Rights Council.
In addition, our money confiscated by the previous proclamation is now released; we have reopened our branch offices; we have newly hired workers and are still hiring; we are resuming many of our activities that were phased out.
So, we are exploiting the opportunity of the right to association as much as possible as stipulated in the constitution. The constitution clearly states that everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and we are practically manifesting this. We are assembled and organized to defend human rights and we are acting accordingly.
We are engaged in doing public works like paying attention to human rights and arranging public dialogues. We will soon have two large public workshops that involve the media and political parties. Two research papers are being conducted focusing on what is expected of them regarding human rights.
Regarding the association, we are working smoothly without confronting any more major challenges. We are filling the gaps created earlier and moving appropriately expanding our society space.
How is your accessibility right now following the reform of the institution?
We have already launched 7 branches in Gambela, Hawassa, Jigjiga, Gondar, Bahirdar, Diredawa, Neqemt and one more central district branch in Addis Ababa. Therefore, as our institution is membership based, our accessibility is at a good status. We have members even in areas our branch does not exist.
As an institution established to work on human rights that involve political parties, how is your preparedness and how are you planning to participate in the upcoming national election?
This is a basic question because among the big issues for EHRCO is working principally on election. The major duties to be conducted regarding election are providing voters’ education, observing the election and providing post-election report with regard to the process. We have good experience from the 2005 national election; we have had a great deal of compiled documents on that election. We have also made the necessary preparations to participate in the upcoming national elections, filled necessary documents and submitted to the National Electoral Board. We are looking for license from NEB to provide voters with education. We have formed a team that works on election-related issues and we are experienced and capable of observing the election in terms of human resource and finance.
We assign observers in each polling station to properly observe the pre, while and post-election processes whether it is conducted keeping the right procedure or not.
If you observe defects in due process of the election, how will you manage it?
As an institution of human rights, we believe the election must be conducted as per the international standard. We properly measure the challenges encounter the election if so. What was the root cause? Wasn’t there a plan B? Couldn’t it be forecast in advance? We consider all these issues while weighing the circumstance.
Though we do not have direct role on the election process and address possible problems, as a human right institution, we do not appreciate any illegal activity that creates obstacle to the election. Rather, as a civil society, we advocate free, fair and democratic election and encourage the public to manipulate their right to vote and we criticize illegal activities in the perspective of law and human rights principles.
Following the reform, what is the institution doing on capacity building in terms of human resource, finance and accessibility?
It is obvious that our capacity with around 7 district branches and a head office with limited number of workers, around 30, could not meet the population of Ethiopia estimated over 110 million. Even there are states we could not reach yet as an office. We are expected to do more.
We have designed strategies to meet what we could not have yet. The first one is capacitating the institution with human resource, finance and even policy. To this end, there is an independent institution called Organizational Capacity Assessment (OCA) that conducts assessment on the sufficiency of human resources and coverage as well as overall activity. Based on its recommendation, we get into the implementation. In addition, there are internal policies or manuals that serve for various activities as guideline. We use them by upgrading the existing guidelines and designing new ones that fit the current situation. Most of the policies and the manuals have been finalized and the next is implementation.
In terms of finance, we have active donors that support us; we believe that we have to create additional financial resource for the sustainability of the institution. This is also included in the strategy as organizational sustainability is essential. We are discussing the issue at a larger scale.
Moreover, we are strengthening our internal capacity by hiring necessary human resources; launching branches and equipping them with necessary materials. We are closely working with stakeholders. Human rights issue is not a duty of a single institution. A government institution, even cannot accomplish its duties alone. So, as a civic society, we are working with like-minded organizations and even with government organizations without violating our independency and nonpartisan looking for common goals. Coordination is essential to improve human rights issue in our country.
As human rights issue is a broad concept, what is the focus area of your institution?
The EHRCO flagship basically is reporting on human rights violation. We are known by our reports nationally, continentally and internationally. We are disclosing human rights violations occurred in different parts of our country.
For instance, we have acted immediately on the unprecedented brutal actions recently happened in our country. We issued strong report and handed over to concerned bodies including media and the government to act accordingly by making criminals accountable and to prevent such actions not to be repeated.
The other is conducting discussions with media based on the reports since some gaps can be filled by discussion and sharing ideas. We also conduct public dialogue as I mentioned earlier. Based on the discussion, we give recommendations to concerned bodies on what to be done regarding human rights protection.
The other is awareness creation on various human rights issues. This is conducted by all branches to raise awareness of everyone as human rights issue go across the board. The target sects of the community include women, youth, police, judges, attorneys and the like. Doing this, we have registered good achievements by correcting some wrong perceptions.
How do you describe the credibility of the institution while doing all these being unbiased?
This is a big question. EHRCO’s acceptance is very great. For example, it has an observatory seat on Africa’s Individuals’ And Peoples’ Institution. It is a founding member of Human Rights Defenders’ Organization. It is a corresponding member of International Anti Torture Institution and many other international institutions. We work with these institutions collaboratively.
We also issue alternative or shadow report to balance Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This alternative report, which is presented by nongovernmental organizations, enables the nations to correct the gaps they did not recognize. Many recommendations have been given to our country based on our parallel reports.
Tell us a bit about the roles of Professor Mesfin Woldemariam on the establishment of EHRCO?
His first and the greatest role is establishing the council by generating the idea and initiating his friends. His dream to establish EHRCO in 1992 was to support the new coming armed forces’ to state concerning human rights, rule of law and democracy. Lately, when observing some actions went wrong and need correction, they started reporting on the issues.
He also played a great role in leading the institution; mentoring new comers; consulting and giving directions and soliciting funds from Ethiopians residing abroad. His exemplary role for many including, me, is quite immense. So, his deeds must be written with golden ink.
How will you remember his legacies?
In order to sustain his legacy, the basic thing to be done is to commemorate him; to make his name above the grave. In this regard, EHRCO has set two plans, which were officially announced on his burial. The first one is to establish a library named “Professor Mesfin Woldemariam Library.” The library which is located at the headquarters will be equipped with different books basically his books to transfer his knowledge to the next generation.
The other is establishing annual awarding institution known as “Professor Mesfin Annual Human Rights Defenders’ Award.” It is similar to international awards like Nobel Prize. The process is underway getting consensus among the board members. Commemorating Professor Mesfin should not be the duty of EHRCO; I suggest the government has also a responsibility to recognize this icon by dedicating roads, educational institutions… to his name.
What are the best achievements of the institution over the years, activities and its vision for future Ethiopia concerning human rights?
EHRC has recorded many successes mainly in condemning any type of human rights violation. Besides, it is a model to the establishment of many other Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) acting towards good governance and democracy. It also produced many intellectuals locally and internationally that jointly work with the institution.
It has documented its works for the reference regarding human right issues in Ethiopia for different purposes. Some governmental organizations have made corrections in some cases following our report. These reports alert other organizations too.
Our vision for Ethiopia is basically to see a country in which human rights are indiscriminately honored, prevalence of rule of law under any circumstance; developed and institutionally assured democratic system. We are ready to work with nonpartisan institutions to enhance the democratic system.
To this end, EHRCO needs support. Everyone whether member or not, including government and the media, can and must provide necessary support as it advocates human rights and plays a balancing role.