Ending the culture of impunity

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / May 26, 2009
The culture of impunity

David Dadge, Director of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, the oldest press freedom organization in the world, recently wrote a compelling commentary in The Guardian which should be of special interest to all Ethiopian human rights advocates.1 He suggested that the current dictatorship in Ethiopia operates in an entrenched culture of impunity (not to be confused with the equally gripping culture of corruption that afflicts it) in which gross human rights abuses are committed routinely without legal accountability of the abusers and active complicity of officials. He argued that this culture could be brought to an end or significantly curtailed by donor countries and international lending institutions.

Dadge offered a partial list of the crimes committed by the current dictatorship with impunity: … An authoritarian government rules Ethiopia with virtual impunity. Prime minister Meles Zenawi, in power for 18 years, has crushed the opposition. His ruling party dominates public institutions. Worse still, in a vast and predominantly rural country, the prime minister's underlings control broadcasting and maintain a choke-hold on other media… Four years ago this month, Zenawi's Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF) suffered its worst loss at the polls since the former guerrilla overthrew a ruthless, Soviet-backed regime in 1991. Rather than accept its losses, the EPRDF-run government responded with a brutal crackdown, claiming outright victory and accusing the opposition of trying to stage an insurrection. Security forces attacked peaceful protesters, jailed opposition leaders, sent thousands of their supporters to gruesome detention camps and accused independent journalists of treason – a crime punishable by death.

The Legacy of Impunity

Ethiopia’s modern history has been disfigured by unfathomable acts of official cruelty and inhumanity. Few have ever been held to account for criminal acts of depravity that can be soberly described as monstrous. The enduring legacy of impunity is too painful to remember: There was the criminal and extreme indifference of the imperial regime to the hundreds of thousands of famine victims in the early 1970s. The fire stoked by that famine consumed the monarchy, and from its ashes rose a military dictatorship of unimaginable savagery. Mengistu and his henchmen orchestrated official “terror” campaigns which resulted in the extermination of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens. Justice has yet to catch up with those criminals. Today there is a diabolically cruel and wicked criminal enterprise masquerading as a government that has continued the sadistic and barbarous legacy of impunity. The current dictators in Ethiopia operate on the belief that they can commit any crime whatsoever without fear of punishment, legal accountability, or retribution. This culture of impunity must end!

Practicing the Culture of Impunity

Over the past decade, there has been massive documentation of human rights violations in Ethiopia. Yet there has not been a single independently verified prosecution of human rights violations under the current dictatorship. No regime official or member of its security or military force has ever been prosecuted for crimes against humanity. There have been no prosecutions even when there is clear proof of gross human rights violations in the possession of the regime. Just last year, Col. Michael Dewars, the internationally renowned riot control expert, hired by the dictatorship to make recommendations on riot control improvements stated in his report that the Director General of the Ethiopian Federal Police told him, “As a direct result of the 2005 riots, he [had] sacked 237 policemen.”2 This evidence directly contradicts previous statements by the dictatorship denying specific knowledge of any criminal conduct by the riot policemen who fired into crowds of innocent protesters indiscriminately. It also shows the entrenched and hardcore nature of the culture of impunity in the dictatorship: Even suspects who are “directly” implicated in the massacres of nearly 200 protesters and maiming of nearly 800 others four years ago have yet to be brought to justice. On December 13, 2003, more than 400 Anuaks were massacred by uniformed soldiers of the dictatorship, and tens of thousands were forced to flee to the Sudan. Though there are multitudes of eyewitnesses to the massacres, not one of the implicated “soldiers” has been prosecuted.

Even when U.N. Undersecretary General John Holmes in 2007 visited the Ogaden region and later recommended to the leader of the current dictatorship that large numbers of civilians had been killed by regime troops, their homes burned and deprived of adequate food or medicines, the official response was, “There have probably been cases of [human] rights violations by government troops [but] the violations were not widespread or systematic.” No one was ever identified, investigated, arrested or prosecuted for these “human rights violations”. Indiscriminate shelling of civilians in Somalia by the regime’s troops have resulted in mind boggling civilian casualties and displacement of over 1.5 million people from their homes. No one has been charged with war crimes. There are also thousands of cases in which official criminal acts have been perpetrated against individuals in violation of the dictatorship’s own constitution and criminal laws as documented fully in the annual reports of the various international human rights organizations. No prosecutions in such cases have taken place. To add insult to injury, the dictatorship recently drafted a so-called antiterrorism law which aims to provide full “legal” armor to its decadent culture of impunity. (Legal history buffs will no doubt be amused by the curious similarity of the text, tenor and spirit of the dictatorship’s “anti-terrorism law” with the 1933 Reichstag Fire Decree, which accelerated the entrenchment of the Nazis by giving them a legal cudgel to hammer down their opposition on mere suspicion of “terrorism”.)

Ending the Culture of Impunity

Dadge argues convincingly that donor countries and multilateral lending institutions providing “development” funds have significant leverage against the dictatorship in Ethiopia, and could help bring accountability for human rights violations and closure to the culture of impunity:

The European Union and the United States will pump about $2.5bn into Ethiopia this year, a sum that does not even begin to include the cost of medicines, famine relief and countless other services provided by non-profit groups… There are ways to pressure Zenawi: Donors should deny Ethiopian ministers a seat at diplomatic tables… The Development Assistance Group, created by the EU and other principal donors to co-ordinate aid projects in Ethiopia [should] ensure that international resources do not support policies that are anathema to human rights values…. The EU should aggressively enforce the Cotonou Agreement, which requires Ethiopia and other nations that receive European assistance to respect ‘human rights, democratic principles, and the rule of law’. The EU and the US should wield more of their clout at the World Bank and other international organisations to link development grants to progress on press freedom and human rights.

Implicit in Dadge’s argument are three vital propositions: 1) The indulgence and benign indifference of the EU, the U.S. and international lending organizations are partly responsible for emboldening the dictatorship to continue to practice its culture of impunity. 2) These same donors and lenders hold the key to ending that culture of impunity by making all non-humanitarian aid to the dictatorship contingent on improvements in human rights. 3) The dictatorship will continue to conjure up the specter of terrorism, regional instability and internal chaos to cling to power and perpetuate reflexive support from the donors and lenders.

We have witnessed the Bush administration turning a blind eye to massive human rights violations in Ethiopia so long as the dictatorship was willing to undertake a proxy war in Somalia. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown chose to be romanced by smooth talk of democracy and intellectual pretensions; they too turned a blind eye. Brown insulted the intelligence of all Africans when he invited the current dictator in Ethiopia, universally condemned for his dismal human rights record, to represent Africa at the G-20 meeting. But that has been the history of duplicity of the Bush-Brown-Gordon axis. The EU must also be outed for its hypocrisy. Not long ago, it rewarded the dictators in Ethiopia with a gift of €250 million shortly after they clamped down on NGOs and civic society institutions. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund suspended some aid in feigned outrage against the dictatorship following the 2005 elections, but later opened up the floodgates of loans to sustain it. None of the donors and lenders did much to stop the killings, mass arrests, imprisonments and persecution of innocent Ethiopians. It is self-evident that for more than a decade, there has been a tragic failure of donor and lender policy in not supporting good governance in Ethiopia based on the principle of the rule of law. Donors have sought to evade the truth about the dictatorship by justifying its egregious human rights abuses as manifestations of benign ignorance, inexperience, incompetence or lack of technical understanding of modern governance. Donors and lenders must be made to support democracy and the rule of law in Ethiopia!

From a Culture of Impunity to a Culture of the Rule of Law

Dadge is telling us that the culture of impunity practiced by the dictatorship could be changed by transforming international donor and lender policies. The first step in bringing about this change is to get donors and lenders to take moral responsibility for their complicity in the dictatorship’s human rights abuses. We must do everything possible to get them to publicly condemn the regime’s repression and atrocities. Second, we must demonstrate to them with empirical evidence that the aid and development loans they provide to the regime are pivotal in sustaining the system of repression and human rights abuses. We must make convincing moral, political and legal arguments that show the rule of law and growth of democratic institutions in Ethiopia will serve their practical and long term interests better than the expediency of supporting a regime that can sustain itself only through violence and brutality. In short, we must use all of our resources to force Western donor countries and multilateral lending institutions to publicly chose between democracy and the rule of law in Ethiopia on the one hand, and dictatorship and human rights abuses on the other. That should be the cornerstone of our global advocacy strategy!

We challenge Ethiopians exiled in Europe to do their part and follow up with Dadge’s suggested courses of action. They have a powerful legal tool to make their case before the European Union. They must insist that the EU live up to its legal obligations under the 2000 Cotonou Partnership Agreement, and deny aid and loans to governments that do not “respect human rights, uphold democratic principles based on the rule of law and maintain transparency and accountability in governance.”

We are not unmindful of the tired, worn out and silly sovereignty arguments (“no donor or lender can tell us to improve human rights”) of the dictatorship. There is one simple truth the dictators need to understand clearly: Beggars can not dictate terms to their benefactors! They accept graciously and gratefully what they are given. Taxpayers of Western donor countries have no moral or legal obligation to provide material support to regimes who use their aid to commit crimes against humanity. A truly sovereign government takes care of its people, abides by the rules of international law and does not depend on the perpetual charity and goodwill of others to feed its people, run its government and maintain its social institutions.

Zero Tolerance for a Culture of Impunity

We must consistently advocate a policy of zero tolerance of a culture of impunity in Ethiopia. This means torturers, killers and other violators of human rights must be thoroughly and independently investigated, prosecuted, convicted and punished. The time to build a transitional bridge from a culture of impunity to a culture of the rule of law is now. Exiled Ethiopians alone can not build this bridge. We must make allies of the citizens of the EU countries and the U.S. and convince them that their hard earned tax dollars must not be used to bankroll a depraved dictatorship in Ethiopia. In the U.S., many of us have taken that challenge directly. We shall continue to work with Congressman Donald Payne and Senators Russ Feingold and Pat Leahy to bring to fruition the “Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act” (formerly H.R. 2003), which links U.S. non-humanitarian aid to improvements in human rights in Ethiopia. We are also confident that the Obama Administration will be sympathetic to our cause of human rights accountability. We believe the new administration will not turn a blind eye, a deaf ear and a mute tongue to our plea for help in stopping human rights abuses, ending the culture of impunity and in establishing the rule of law in Ethiopia.

Letter writing campaigns, public demonstrations and petitions are important; but to end the culture of impunity and bring human rights violators to justice much more is needed. Persuasive, convincing and cold hard evidence is required. We must expand and develop an ongoing data collection effort that documents human rights violations on a systematic basis throughout the country. We must apply creative strategies to monitor harassment of human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists, use video and audio technologies to document incidents of abuse particularly by members of the security forces, locate and maintain witness lists for abuse incidents, keep photographic and documentary records of torture and abuse victims and perform other similar activities. We thank those courageous Ethiopians who have undertaken such tasks to date.

Those Who Refuse to Learn From History Should Learn From Their Constitution

George Santayana admonished, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If we do not learn from the burdensome legacy of the culture of impunity, we shall be condemned to prolong and tolerate it for ages to come. The old adage holds true in Ethiopia’s case: “The limits of tyrants are set by the level of tolerance of those subjected to tyranny.” The people of Ethiopia have tolerated a ruthless dictatorship for eighteen years. They are now a hungry and angry people. They are hungry not only for food to sustain their bodies, but also a human rights culture anchored in the principle of the rule of law and democratic institutions to nurture their spirits. They are angry because their basic human rights are violated everyday. Freedom from the rule of those wallowing in a culture of impunity comes at a high price. Many Ethiopians pay that price on a daily basis. We believe history is a great teacher; but the law is a formidable disciplinarian. Article 28 of the dictatorship’s constitution is prophetically instructive: Crimes Against Humanity. There shall be no period of limitation on persons charged with crimes against humanity as provided by international conventions ratified by Ethiopia and other laws of Ethiopia. The legislature or any other organ of state shall have no power to pardon or give amnesty with regard to such offences.”

Those who refuse to learn from history would be wise to learn from their own constitution!

1 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/19/ethiopia-human-rights