Wonderful. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I want to thank all of the members of Parliament and members of this committee for inviting us today to present our point of view pertaining to the upcoming election in Ethiopia and the situation of human and democratic rights in that country.
SOCEPP-Canada, which both of us represent, is a community-based human rights group advocating for respect of basic human and democratic rights in Ethiopia. In our opinion, in order to assess whether the upcoming election will be free and fair, one has to examine whether or not the internationally acceptable standards of democracy and human rights are respected in Ethiopia yesterday and today.
It's imperative to acknowledge that this planned election will take place in the aftermath of the 2005 election, in which thousands of citizens were detained and about 200 demonstrators were killed by government security forces following a peaceful demonstration. Nearly five years after that, nobody has been brought to justice. In fact, the members of the inquiry commission have been forced into exile, including the former Supreme Court judge of southern Ethiopia, Judge Frehiwot Samuel.
Since 2005, evidence has clearly shown that the repression has intensified in Ethiopia and the political space has narrowed extremely. The ruling political party, TPLF, has systematically blocked all venues for free and fair elections in that country. The harassment, torture, and repression is massive. As documented by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Genocide Watch, the U.S. State Department's human rights report, and others, the repression in Ogaden, Gambella, Oromo, and other parts of the country is just massive.
Ethiopia continues to be the top jailer of journalists, even in 2009. In February 2010, in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Joel Simpson, executive director of the international advocacy committee, CPJ, wrote, “according to our research, this makes Ethiopia the second worst jailer of the press in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Eritrea jails the most.
In September 2009, again, a study by Open.Net Initiative, an internationally respected group, identifies Ethiopia as the only country in sub-Saharan Africa with “consistent” and “substantial” filtering of critical websites. The websites that have been blocked include CPJ's website.
Since 2005, in order to fully paralyze or disable the functioning of an independent civic society, the ruling party has passed three extremely Draconian laws. This includes the anti-terrorism proclamation, the charities and societies proclamation, and the mass media and freedom of information proclamation. The charities and societies proclamation prohibits any civic society that receives more than 10% of its income from foreign sources from participating in any advocacy work, be it human rights, women's rights, children's rights, elderly rights, language rights, or whatever. Absolutely, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.K.'s Article 19, CPJ, and many other human rights groups have condemned this legislation, but the government is still entrenched and continues with that.
As a result of this, in Ethiopia today, civic society has simply been decimated. A report issued about a month ago by Human Rights Watch entitled, Ethiopia: Repression Rising Ahead of the May Elections, summarizes the situation as follows:
“Expressing dissent is very dangerous in Ethiopia,”.... “The ruling party and the state are becoming one, and the government is using the full weight of its power to eliminate opposition and intimidate people into silence. Government repression has caused many civil society activists and journalists to flee the country.... The most prominent independent newspaper was closed in December 2009 and the government jammed...”
--and the Prime Minister openly said this in an interview--
“...Voice of America radio broadcasts last month. Ethiopians are unable to speak freely, organize political activities, and challenge their government policies--whether through peaceful protests, voting, or publishing their views....”
This was what was said by Human Rights Watch.
The detention, harassment, and killing of opposition leaders and campaigners is widespread.
Ms. Birtukan Mideksa, the only female political party leader in the country's history, leader of the opposition and Unity for Democracy and Justice Party--UDJ--continues to suffer in jail and is denied the basic right of visits by friends and family, except for her four-year-old daughter and her elderly mother. Birtukan is in prison because in a meeting in Sweden she allegedly said that her release in 2007 from prison was a politically negotiated release, not an admission of guilt. Only because she said that is she now in prison for life.
Besides that, as the election gets closer, the repression is intensified. Recent reports, for example, show that the coalition candidate, Aregawi Gebre Yohanes, was killed in the province of Tigray. Only a few days ago another candidate was killed in central Ethiopia. On April 25, Professor Beyene Petros, the current chair of the opposition forum, citing the number of examples of intimidation and harassment, has reported widespread abuse by the government again.
The election commission in the country is impartial. It's filled with supporters and members of the ruling party. As Professor Petros said, the ruling party is a player and at the same time a referee. In such situations it's almost impossible to win an election. Therefore, it's imperative to fully accept that the upcoming election will be conducted under the most repressive environment, in the absence of basic conditions for free and fair elections. The signing of the code of conduct, which the government says is a big deal, is simply insufficient to make the election in any way free or fair. It was exclusionary and failed to address major issues, such as the release of political prisoners, the creation of an independent election commission, establishing the environment for free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and others.
The most disturbing aspect that's developing now is that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's statement characterizes the opposition as surrogates of the Eritrean government and allies of that regime. He has stated very clearly that the government is now gathering evidence of wrongdoing by the opposition party leaders. These are clear notices that the ruling party wants to attack the opposition and throw them in jail should they threaten their power, as they did in 2005. This should not be tolerated. The international community should put the rulers on notice and clearly tell them that such behaviour and violence against the opposition and public will not be tolerated.
As reported by ICG, the International Crisis Group, in September of 2009, while the EPRDF promises democracy, it has not accepted the fact that the opposition is qualified to take power via the ballot box, and it tends to regard the expression of differing views and interests as a form of betrayal. Hence, we are very concerned that the planned election will only be a mockery and contribute to further deterioration of rights. The popular aspiration for human rights and democracy and the continued narrowing of the political space are completely incompatible. We are concerned that such frustrating situations could undermine the peace and stability of the country and lead to the abandonment of peaceful political activity. This will not be in the interests of Ethiopia, the neighbouring countries, and the international community.
We believe this unmitigated support by the international community to the government of Meles Zenawi is a recipe for growing instability in Ethiopia and in the region at large. Hence, we recommend that the following measures be taken:
Canada must strongly condemn the repression of human and democratic rights in Ethiopia and demand a full respect of such rights. It must break its silence and condemn the ongoing repression and climate of fear in Ethiopia, as suggested by Human Rights Watch.
Canada must join the people of Ethiopia and other human rights organizations in demanding the release of political prisoners, including Birtukan Mideksa and others.
Canada must use its considerable financial leverage to end the harassment of the opposition and the repressive laws that are crippling civil society in that country.
Canada should investigate whether its aid has been misused for political purposes, including the buying of votes. There are numerous reports pertaining to those kinds of things. Send a substantial number--a substantial number--of independent election observers to be placed in strategic locations or districts in consultation with the opposition. Take into account the pre-election repression when assessing the freedom and fairness of the polls. Another option could be to consider sending a bipartisan parliamentary committee to assess the situation. The commission will have to give a blunt assessment of the facts on the ground.
Canada must take the initiative and work, in our opinion, with all donor countries to put pressure on the incumbent regime to negotiate in good faith with all opposition groups and parties to pave the way for an all-inclusive national reconciliation, sustainable change, and democratization in Ethiopia.
We think it's time really to begin to think about post-election at this point. Canada should consider, in our opinion, the suspension of non-emergency aid and/or targeted sanctions should the ruling group in Ethiopia refuse to hear the call for respect of rights and democratization.
Thank you very much.