Ambassador Tiruneh Zena, commissioner of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), has served in his current position for the past five years and five months. An economics professional by training, Ambassador Tiruneh has devoted much of his professional life to diplomacy. His diplomatic career stretched over 30 years and he has served his country in many diplomatic missions around the world. His appointment to head the commission back in 2010 was approved unanimously by the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HoPR). Finishing his term, the Ambassador is leaving his post this week and Solomon Goshu of The Reporter caught up with him to discuss the role the commission has played under his leadership and the challenges therein. Excerpts:
The Reporter: What do you consider to be your legacy in Ethiopian Human Rights Commission?
Ambassador Tiruneh Zena: Whenever I think about what I have done and what is that I am leaving behind as a legacy in EHRC, I am always beleaguered by so many things that have not been achieved. But, I believe that I have managed to help the institution to stand on its own two feet. Back in those days when I was assigned to lead the commission there was little that the commission was doing by itself. The bulk of the work was conducted with the help of consultants and partners like UN agencies. When I took over, although the structure was already there, the commission had as few as 20 experts under its wing; it had a major problem when it came to human resources. But there are some 200 experts working for the institution. Back then, its activities were limited to the capital city. But I can say in almost all the regions we have fully operational branch offices. Also there were a lot to be done by way of awareness creation about the institution and what it does. Now, people know what the commission is doing and also ask for its services. On the other hand, we have also managed to provide free legal aid to those people who cannot afford to hire them by themselves. Previously, free legal aid was not supported by the government. Bur in collaboration with higher learning institutions we have managed to open 130 free legal aid giving centers across the country. Now, some 20,000 people from the low-income community are benefiting from this service. So, I am happy to leave behind these legacies.
People in charge of human right commissions in other countries are usually at loggerheads with the executive. However, you believe that this is not the right approach and rather say that working with the executive is a better way. Has this approach worked better for the commission?
This commission has its own objective; and the government when it established this institution had its own motives. In different places, human right commissions and their establishment may have their own raison d’ être Despite these differences, they do have a common goal of monitoring human right conditions and that governments are protecting human rights. But, they do differ in the approach they follow when they work to attain these objectives. To decide which approach to follow one has to evaluate the environment one is working in. We as well have chosen our own way of going about our duties. Some officials in the government actually wanted the commission to take direct orders from the executive. But we did not accept this. It is the council of commissioners that has the last say in what the commission does. We are not in a constant bickering with the executive body either, as this might be desired by some foreign entities. We chose to be somewhere in the middle. We have tried to work with the government while still maintaining our independence. We have publicized what we thought was a problem from the side of the government. We have tried to do what we think is beneficial for the people. Of course, the so-called western human right advocates have their own way of doing things. They want us to bicker with the government when they think people who support their ideology have suffered from human rights violations. This culture is a continuation of the cold war era. As a developing nation, I don’t think this approach is good for Ethiopia. I think the commission should focus on advocating the rights of the public at large rather than serving the interest of a few.
Is the institutional structure helpful to attain the objectives that the commission is set up to attain?
It is not where I would have liked it to be. But, compared to where we were at the start of my tenure, I can say we have done better. But I can understand that the commission has not created the kind of influence that is expected of it. It was only three months into my appointment when we had to observe the fourth general election and write a good report about the election. At the time, there were people who said that that was an impossible task since we were facing a human resource problem. But, I argued that that experience was good to do a better job for the fifth general election. The commission has to do these things to influence the country’s democratization process. The report we produced at the time was better than what was produced by other observer missions with better capacity. People have actually attested to this fact. Five years ago, we were able to serve only 300 people in a year. But now we serve more than a thousand people; for example, this year alone we have offered our services to 1,500 people. As you know, in Ethiopia, we have a huge gap in information – information that is based on a thorough study and investigation. So, to bridge that gap, we have set up a research and study department in the commission and we now produce periodic report on issues that we believe is pertinent to our nation. Usually, it is the foreigners who produce the bulk of research work on Ethiopia. Sometimes they exaggerate the facts on the ground. So, we tried to produce research outputs and set the records straight in the international arena. I think if this trend continues, it would be good to exert our influence on the global opinion platform.
You are scheduled to present your performance report to the House of Peoples’ Representatives every year. How do you explain your relationship with the House?
I was appointed by the House. In fact, I was appointed unanimously by a House that has a large number of opposition MPs in Ethiopia’s recent history. So, I take it that I have the full support of parliament. The House has approved the budget and given me the go-ahead to establish branch offices across the regions. Nevertheless, the nature of the commission and the culture of our nation are not always in complete consonance. So, this has created some problems for us. Let alone in Ethiopia, even in the advanced nation such institutions do not have a long history. Nations signed the Paris Convention which led to the establishment of institutions like ours only as recently as 1993. So, it is difficult to say that all government bodies, including parliament, have well understood the role of the institutions. Government institutions and officials get confused when we say none of the executive body has control over the commission. So, leaders of this institution have to understand this confusion very well.
During the past ten years, some of the proclamations that were passed by parliament were criticized for being in contradictions with basic internationally accepted human rights and the FDRE constitution itself. Although your institution has the authority to put an end to this ongoing debate, you chose not to do so. Some people claim that the commission fears that the House would take retaliatory measures if it leans too heavily on such issues. What is your take on this?
Indeed, I am aware that there are some groups who claim that these laws are in contradiction with our constitution and the human right principles that the country subscribes too. And I do admit that it is a weakness on our side not to assume a stance on these issues. But, it is not because we fear parliament, or due to the relationship we had with parliament. As a matter of fact, we had a plan to formulate our opinion regarding the anti-terrorism law and the charities and civil society’s proclamation that was passed by parliament. To be honest, personally, I do not believe the anti-terrorism proclamation is as bad as some people paint it out to be. In the first place, we all know that Ethiopia managed to go this far in development because it was possible to ensure the peace and stability of the nation. Now, the condition is permissive for people to work and earn their livelihood. Now, the country’s image has changed from that of a poverty-stricken one to a fast- growing economy. Not only in development, but now we are being hailed for democratization. Furthermore, we all know that we are in a very tough neighborhood which is a breeding ground for terrorists and terrorist activities. So, I don’t think it is fair that people are shouting against this proclamation when it is clear that it has played a major role to ensure peace in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, as far as the charities and civil societies proclamation is concerned, the study has already been started and the reason why it is not complete until now is that those experts in charge of the study have left the organization.
More than the commission’s actual independence in operating as a human rights institution, it is the perception that it is operating under the pressure of the government that is hurting its credibility. What have you done to curb such a perception?
This kind of perception does not disturb me. What bothers me is the perception of the vulnerable public. It is absolutely important to curb any misguided perception of the public. Scholars and international organizations do have their own beliefs. The growth conditions of each and every individual country differ from one another. Sometimes, some of the things which are acceptable in one country might not be as acceptable in others. So, what these foreign institutions wish to happen in Ethiopia might not necessarily be in the best interest of Ethiopians. So, at times they deny this outright. I think such issues will become clearer as time goes by. I have also seen that some groups claim that the commission is an extension of the government. But, I have also noticed that this situation is slowly shifting. Now, a lot of institutions take data from the commission. A lot of them are referring to our studies and research materials. However, these issues are always going to be around. I advise the upcoming leadership to take these matters easily and focus on what matters, what the public wants. We have established human right forums everywhere; and we are helping the public to take a lead in these forums. The thing is that these so-called rights groups define human rights in Ethiopia in its very narrow sense. Instead of focusing on the fundamental issues they tend to dwell on the symptoms. For example, if a certain individual is imprisoned they tend to lobby for the release of one individual rather than the fundamental problem that led to the imprisonment of that individual. They don’t care about the system. As you know, our understanding of the rights as a whole is a problematic legacy of our oppression for a thousand years.
One of the sharp criticisms leveled against the commission is your failure to produce periodic human rights condition reports and also your weakness to investigate and make a report on alleged rights violations in the country. Why have you not done that?
The primary task of any human rights commission is to prepare a comprehensive human rights report periodically. Actually, we had started to prepare this report three years ago. You see, such a report has to be up to standard. And it has to be a report that would enhance the credibility of the commission among the public. I reviewed the report at its drafting stages for about three times and returned it back to the experts because it was not up to standard. So, still it is under preparation. One of the issues in the draft report was that our data was not up to date with the GTP plan of the government. Mind you, this institution is only 10 years old. I do not believe that it is at the level where it can thoroughly investigate and make periodical reports yet. At the end of the day, we will be investigating government’s documents and actions; and to do so one needs to develop the capacity to see something that the government is not seeing. So, we did not have that capacity in the past.
Do you think the government is ready to implement the national human rights action plan that the House endorsed in 2013? Do you think the government is serious about this action plan?
Yes, it is very committed to implement the action plan. We have actually identified which institutions would be tasked with the implementation of this plan. We have also assigned an overseeing and controlling institution. Since the commencement of the action plan, we frequently got together to evaluate the progress under chairmanship of the ministry of justice. The commission serves as secretary general. Yes, we entered the implementation phase very late, but it is worth noting that there are only 30 countries in the world that have actually devised a human right action plan. In Africa, there are only seven. Among these, South Africa is one, but the action plan there is prepared by the human right commission without the direct participation from the various government agencies like the PM’s office, the cabinet, various ministries and the parliament as was the case here in Ethiopia. Also, Ethiopia is one of the few who endorsed it in parliament. I think now the action plan is just starting to be implemented. But, once it starts to come every five years just like the economic plans, I think that it would become a culture of the nation. You see, this action plan identified and targeted some 11 problems in the human rights sector. But, imagine what would happen if it could continue this way and come up with other 20 or 30 problems in the coming years.
Another problem here is regarding investigating and reporting on human right violations in the country; mostly the commission’s reports is criticized for being highly outdated and untimely. Why is that? Also, do you do a follow-up work on some of the issues that are covered in your reports?
We have a serious capacity limitation when it comes to producing reports on timely issues. But, when we actually do produce the report it will be an in-depth report. For example, our report on Ethiopian prisons is not written based on a sample study; it is an exhaustive study of all the prison facilities in Ethiopia. If I am not mistaken, it is only four prison facilities in Somalia and Oromia regions that we have not seen. Apart from that, 50 percent of the issues raised in our report were rectified by the facilities thanks to the stakeholder meetings we have conducted before making the reports public. The report has put pressure on the administrative body of these prison facilities and now we see improved budget, improved situation and overall improved supply of basic services in the prison. In fact, the report has helped to rectify gross violations to the extent of paying compensations. Currently, we are conducting our second round of the study. From now on, we are planning to conduct studies every two years. One thing we have to note is that the responsibility to protect human rights is not a responsibility that is limited to the commission. The court as well is another entity which protects human rights.
Some scholars argue that the first-past-the-post electoral rule should be replaced by a proportional system of representation for the development of multiparty democracy in Ethiopia. Some even claim that is also a position that is championed by the commission citing your report regarding the forth general election. Do you agree?
Our responsibility is to apply what has been enshrined in the constitution. So, we don’t advocate such views. What we have said in our election report is that the reason why the opposition parties which have managed to garner 30 percent of public votes but won only one seat in the House is that they are divided. So, some people took this to mean that the commission is supporting a proportional electoral system. But that is wrong. As an institution that is expected to uphold the constitution, we cannot advocate the change in electoral rule. Let alone some individuals and groups who advocating such ideas, even if the government is willing to move to the proportional system we are going to oppose it. Even in my individual capacity, I don’t support such a change. Countries like Israel and Italy that employ the proportional system are facing problems frequently. They spent months negotiating to form a working government. To bring this system to Ethiopia means to disturb the peace and stability of the country. To allow the proportional system means to allow the parties in Ethiopia to stay divided. What is good for the nation is in fact the reverse. We need to see more consolidation of the political parties; we need to have not more than four political parties which have the trust of the public. We don’t have the culture of accepting differences and working together in Ethiopia; and I don’t think it will come anytime soon. So, in this condition, I don’t support a proportional electoral system in Ethiopia.
Many people believe that your commission has not played its role in the democratization process of Ethiopia. Some argue that it is because of the mandate that is assigned to you, while others argue that it is because of the government. Still there are a few who say the commission’s own capacity is the problem. What do you say the reason is?
I don’t agree that our mandate has prevented us from playing a role in the democratization process. Our establishment proclamation is perfectly fine. When we applied to become a member of the UN coordinating committee on human rights we were told that there are some things that needs to be corrected in our establishment proclamation. But, I said then that it was just a pretext to turn down our application. For example, they told us that we cannot visit prison facilities whenever we wanted to; but we have never been denied access. With regard to government pressure, I can say that as far as I am concerned there was nothing that we did not do because of pressure from the government. I would say the main issue has been and still is capacity.