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Analysis: Extension of SoE amid allegations of rights abuse, massacre in Amhara region raises apprehension

During the State of Emergency period that commenced in August 2023, the Amhara region has witnessed numerous allegations of severe human rights violations, including civilian casualties (Photo: China Daily)

Addis Abeba – In early February 2024, chilling reports emerged from residents of Merawi, a small town situated 30 kilometers south of Bahir Dar, the regional capital and administrative center of the Amhara Regional State.

Residents recounted how soldiers conducted door-to-door searches on 12 February 2024, following an “attack on a nearby military camp by insurgents” and how the military personnel interrogated people about rebel fighters and then proceeded with summary “executions” that persisted from dawn to mid-day.

In the following day, reports of unspeakable horror flooded the streets, echoing the anguish of over 100 innocent souls, from the tender age of 14 to the wisdom of 96. What began as a day like any other descended into a nightmare as government forces unleashed a wave of terror upon the unsuspecting residents.

Following the incident, video footage began to circulate on social media, showing dead bodies strewn in the streets of Merawi. Residents reported that only a few days after what they termed the “atrocity,” people began taking the bodies of their loved ones to churches across the town for burial.

Subsequent reports from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have also confirmed that at least 45 civilians were killed in extrajudicial executions in Merawi town, situated in the East Gojjam zone of the Amhara region.

The horrific incident occurred just a week after the House of People’s Representatives voted to extend the state of emergency in the Amhara region for an additional four months, following its six-month tenure.

The proposal presented to legislators by the Minister of Justice, Gedion Timothios, reveals that the extension of the state of emergency aims to maintain “peace and security of the people” amidst the ongoing region-wide militarized conflict.

However, the recent incident in Merawi town has prompted doubts among scholars and the public regarding whether the extension of the state of emergency will restore the long-lost sense of normalcy and order in the tumultuous Amhara region.

Assistant Professor Sisay Asmere, a lecturer in political science at Gondar University, has expressed criticism regarding the federal government’s decision to extend the state of emergency, deeming it “reckless.”

Sisay contends that historically, state of emergency in Ethiopia has exacerbated political issues rather than resolving them.

“Multiple state of emergencies have been declared in the country previously and now in the Amhara region, yet they have failed to effectively address the underlying problems; rather, they have only exacerbated them,” he emphasizes.

Prior to the declaration of the state of emergency in Amhara, Sisay highlights that residents in the region had voiced concerns regarding identity politics, constitutional rights, and freedom of movement throughout the country. Nevertheless, he observes that the state of emergency has further complicated matters, fueling the population’s demands for more regional autonomy, as the government’s response remains inadequate.

Multiple state of emergencies have been declared in the country previously and now in the Amhara region, yet they have failed to effectively address the underlying problems.”

Sisay Asmere, lecturer of political science at Gondar University

Moreover, Sisay underscores that instead of disbanding armed and militia groups, including regional special forces, the state of emergency has resulted in the proliferation of armed rebel groups such as the non-state militia, Fano. He argues that this development will only deepen resentment towards the federal government among the populace.

“The government’s failure to address people’s grievances and its reliance on coercive measures have only fortified the determination of rebel groups,” Sisay asserts. “It has transcended specific grievances or rebel factions; it has evolved into a broader struggle encompassing the entire populace. While the government may achieve tactical victories, it is diminishing the trust and support of the people.”

However, Sisay Mengistie (PhD), assistant professor of human rights law at Addis Ababa University (AAU), contends that the extension of the state of emergency was expected.

He highlights the fact that order and peace have not yet been restored in the region, and the regional government has not fully established itself across various administrative levels, with transportation remaining limited.

“The lifting of the state of emergency would entail the return of the national defense force to its camps,” he remarked.

Nonetheless, Sisay, the assistant professor of human rights law, suggests that there is a concern that rebel groups might exploit this opportunity to strengthen themselves and seize control of major urban centers. “Consequently, the extension of the state of emergency was deemed necessary.”

The lecturer at AAU, Sisay, also expresses concern that the prolonged state of emergency could perpetuate abuses, as citizens often experience limitations on their human and democratic rights during such periods.

Caught in the Crossfire

The militarized conflict in the Amhara region has been characterized by numerous allegations of severe human rights violations, including the killing of civilians. Since its onset, various incidents have implicated government forces in extrajudicial killings.

As early as August 2023, air strikes and shelling in urban areas such as Debre Birhan, Finote Selam, and Burie resulted in civilian casualties and damage to residential and public spaces, as documented by the EHRC.

Bahir Dar city also witnessed civilian killings on its streets and outside homes, while reports of extrajudicial killings by security forces emerged from Gondar city and the town of Shewa Robit.

In November 2023, drone strikes conducted by government forces, which targeted a school and a bus station, led to the deaths of a minimum of 20 civilians, as per reports from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The following month, multiple districts in the Amhara region were subjected to heavy artillery shelling and drone strikes, leading to tragic civilian casualties and infrastructure destruction.

Earlier this week, reports emerged regarding another drone strike in the North Shewa zone of Mojana Wedera district, specifically in an area identified as Sasit. Eyewitnesses and local residents assert that the incident resulted in the loss of at least 30 lives and caused injuries to over 10 individuals.

The drone strike targeted an Isuzu truck transporting civilians, including an 80-day-old infant who had been baptized the day before, along with her mother and grandmother. Eyewitness accounts confirm that both the infant and her grandmother survived the attack. However, tragically, more than seven other family members, including the infant’s mother, perished in the strike.

Sisay, the assistant professor of human rights law, underscores the gaps in the Ethiopian constitution that exacerbate human rights violations during a state of emergency.

The House of Peoples Representatives voted to extend the six-month state of emergency in the Amhara region during a special meeting convened on 02 February, 2024  (Photo: HoPR/Facebook)

As he analyzes, the government could justify taking concerning actions under the guise of addressing dangers to public order, with Article 93 of the proclamation that solidifies a state of emergency in the Amhara region providing legal backing for its actions.

Under the state of emergency proclamation, while some rights have formal protections, such as Article 18 prohibiting cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, he assesses many protections as precarious or perfunctory.

Sisay examines Article 26 on equality as a concerning example.

In his opinion, during an emergency, the right manifests merely as “if the state applies lethal force, it does so evenly; if it respects rights, it does so evenly, and if violations occur, they happen evenly.”

He also observes an apparent constitutional contradiction: rights such as Article 39 succession clauses cannot be restricted even during emergencies, yet are nearly impossible to implement under abnormal circumstances.

“It is a paradox showing constitutional limits—while Article 39 is defined as an unlimited right, Article 19 on the core human right to life has fewer protections,” he analyzes.

In the aftermath of the recent Merawi incident, the State of Emergency Implementation Inquiry Board has declared its intention to investigate the reported extrajudicial killing of civilians allegedly carried out by government security forces.

Following the recent release of a preliminary report by the EHRC, which confirmed the deaths of 45 civilians in Merawi, Nejat Girma, deputy chairperson of the Inquiry Board, expressed that the Board has chosen to initiate an independent investigation.

Nejat further conveyed that the Board intends to conduct on-site investigations in Merawi town to collect firsthand accounts and evidence, although specific timing details were not provided.

On top of facing condemnation locally, the recent killings in Merawi have sparked sharp criticism from the international community.

The European Union (EU) has expressed serious concern and called for an independent investigation, while the US government has demanded “unfettered access” for human rights monitors and accountability for those responsible.

Sisay, a scholar who specializes in human rights law and lectures at AAU, observes that human rights abuses during a state of emergency can only be legally investigated by a board established by the government during such declarations. He explains that while the board’s work may undergo scrutiny, the ultimate responsibility lies with the government.

“International fact-finding and rights monitoring bodies can provide supplementary scrutiny,” he adds.

However, Sisay highlights a deficiency in the amount of information provided by the board regarding its efficacy. “Without transparency, assessing whether the board is fulfilling its mandate might become challenging.”

Yet he maintains that pressure from the international community and human rights organizations may only intensify later.

On the contrary, Sisay, the lecturer of political science at Gondar University, contends that most local fact-finding and monitoring organizations are either politically aligned with the ruling party or lack independence, unlike reports from international organizations, which he perceives as more comprehensive and credible.

The political scientist further asserts that if there were an independent, credible institution, the government might not have declared a state of emergency in the first place.

Scholars push for dialogue

While the government asserts that it has undertaken “comprehensive deliberation” in extending the state of emergency, numerous stakeholders have voiced their apprehension regarding this decision.

The EHRC expressed grave concern following the extension of the state of emergency in the crisis-stricken Amhara regional state.

It is a paradox showing constitutional limits—while Article 39 is defined as an unlimited right, Article 19 on the core human right to life has fewer protections.”

Sisay Mengistie (PhD), assistant professor of human rights law at Addis Ababa University

Daniel Bekele, Chief Commissioner of EHRC, conveyed the Commission’s unease regarding the extension of emergency powers and its potential implications for human rights. These concerns encompass the toll of the conflict, the humanitarian crisis, and the prolonged pre-trial detentions.

Ervin Massinga, the United States Ambassador to Ethiopia, also conveyed apprehension, emphasizing that dialogue remains the sole avenue for resolving the intricate political issues at hand.

Assistant Professor Sisay at AAU concurs with this perspective, stressing the urgency of silencing the guns and initiating dialogue—a responsibility shared by both parties, albeit with the government holding a primary role.

Once dialogue commences, Sisay identifies crucial “agendas” that must be addressed, including identity concerns, self-autonomy, and the freedom of movement within the country—long-standing demands of the Amhara people.

Additionally, he underscores the imperative of equitable economic development, citing UNDP reports labeling the Amhara region as the “dark region” due to persistent disparities in economic opportunities nationwide.

However, he warns that if the government persists with its current course, resorting to force against civilians will further erode trust and bolster rebel recruitment efforts.

“Armed conflict will only exacerbate existing grievances and radicalize both rebels and the populace,” he emphasizes.

Sisay, the lecturer of political science at Gondar University, agrees with such a statement, indicating that a state of emergency will only radicalize rebels and locals further. “Armed conflict will only intensify the questions people have and escalate their demands.”

However, the political scientist also observes that people in the region have become skeptical of the federal government’s rhetoric and harbor a sense of betrayal and mistrust towards authorities. “Consequently, mere statements from the federal government will not resolve the issues at hand.”

Instead, Sisay, the scholar from Gondar University, contends that concrete action is required to bring about change. To begin, he suggests lifting the state of emergency. “This would demonstrate the government’s willingness to address concerns in good faith rather than through force.”

According to the political scientist, further constructive steps could involve opening dialogues with community leaders, implementing economic development initiatives, and launching independent investigations into allegations of rights violations. AS

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