Earlier this month Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an exposé report describing the regime of torture some Ethiopian prisoners have been subject to for years. Officials went on record about the conduct of many guards and security personnel at the Jail Ogaden. Many prisoners had been arbitrarily detained and have spent years inside the facility. The people held in the prison mainly consisted of members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONFL), a separatist group operating out of eastern Ethiopia populated heavily by ethnic Somalis. Newly ascended Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, broke from the traditional policy of ignoring this issue by acknowledging the breaches of human rights. The Guardian reported after the release of the HRW publication that there has been the release of prisoners and three opposition groups have been declassified as terrorist groups. In addition to this has been the order by Ahmed to fire many officials and guards at the prison.
Felix Horne of HRW was pleased with the development but showed some reserve when he tweeted that it “doesn’t address lack of accountability for the years of torture.” Ahmed Soliman, expert on the East African region at Chatham House, stated to the Guardian that due to the usually slow nature of Ethiopian politics, changes such as this “are unprecedented.”
This development has come amongst an apparent wave of reform in Ethiopia subsequent to Ahmed coming to power in April. The Ethiopian government has long been committing breaches of human rights such as in what has occurred in Jail Ogaden. Developing alongside the events surrounding the facility, Ethiopia has been on a process with peace with its northern neighbour Eritrea, whom it has been in conflict with in previous decades. This involves the reconnection of airline services, shipping ports, and telephone lines between the two nations. Alongside a progression in foreign affairs, Ahmed has also improved domestic political conditions in Ethiopia, removing many of those in power who have been abusing their positions. Subsequent criticism from the old political order has occurred due to these actions.
The advent of the report released from HRW and the following action in response to it is a massive positive as it shows that leadership within Ethiopia is starting to be held accountable for its actions. Abiy Ahmed must keep this positive trend on its trajectory as many communities within Ethiopia and in their immediate vicinity in Africa will benefit greatly from more protections to their human rights and sureties that these will not be infringed by their own government and from geopolitical conditions in the region. This includes reconciling with those former prisoners to ensure a more open and inclusive political landscape.
Some in the media, such as Jason Rezaian from the Washington Post, have drawn similarities to this broader movement and the Arab Spring of 2011 onwards. Whilst many have used the sweeping changes in recent months to be optimistic about the prospects of a more democratized Ethiopia; despite this being an acceptable approach to world affairs it is also important to keep these expectations in check with short term gains in human rights conditions. This is shown in the aftermath of the Arab Spring where conditions for civilians in many of the states regressed worse than what they were before the respective movements began. It can only be hoped that Ethiopia doesn’t continue along the same trend of sudden gains followed by reoccurring repression.
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