Home Discussion Papers Rights in Focus A weapon of politics: Torture and the suppression of dissent in Ethiopia
A weapon of politics: Torture and the suppression of dissent in Ethiopia
Written by Laura Clarke (1) Wednesday, 02 May 2012 08:06

The progressive momentum of the international human rights movement, following the end of World War II, has witnessed the codification of many fundamental norms into international law. The use of torture, traditionally regulated through the laws of war,(2) has been integrated into the new rights regime, affording all individuals inviolable protection from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Despite the fervent support offered by States, particularly with regards to the creation and ratification of the Convention against Torture (CAT), reported violations of the international prohibitions continue to emerge.

Embroiled in internal conflict with rebel entities and suffering from continued political instability, Ethiopia’s human rights record has been the subject of intense scrutiny. Concerns expressed by international and domestic monitors regarding large-scale violations have done little to reduce the impetus to document Ethiopia’s adherence to its rights obligations. Over recent years, the systematic use of torture as a means of addressing and suppressing political opposition has been viewed to be one of the more urgent human rights crises faced by the country. Reports issued by the United States (US) State Department, the Committee against Torture (the Committee), and a number of expert non-governmental organisations (NGOs) continue to paint a picture of endemic abuse at all levels of Ethiopian security enforcement. This paper reviews international and domestic reports of torture in Ethiopia, employed as a mechanism through which the state works to suppress dissent. The analysis examines the specific treaty obligations violated and the political context within which these violations are taking place; this subsequently allows for consideration of the probability that Ethiopia will recognise international recommendations and progress towards the elimination of torture as a weapon of politics.

Complicity in torture?

Despite ratifying the CAT in 1994, Ethiopia failed to submit its initial report to the Committee until 2009, 14 years past due.(3) The report gives primary focus to the efficacy with which the provisions of the CAT have been integrated into domestic law, pointing to the Federal Constitution as guaranteeing protection from torture and the 2005 Criminal Code as “specifically criminaliz[ing] and punish[ing] the commission of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”(4) Integral to regulation in times of internal crisis, “Article 18 of the Federal Constitution which provides for the prohibition against not at all derogable under any circumstance,” [emphasis added].(5) Ethiopia’s incorporation of the prohibitions outlined by the CAT therefore obligates it to non-violation, even at times of acute political instability or regional conflict. Following logically from recognition of the non-derogable nature of the prohibition against torture is the application of the CAT’s provisions to all individuals, “whether committed by officials or other people.” The report asserts that “the police are required to observe the fundamental rights provided in the Constitution; and any inhuman or degrading treatment or act by the police is prohibited.”(6) Despite recognising that “the full and effective implementation of the Convention throughout the country is far from reality,”(7) the focus of Ethiopia’s initial report undeniably points away from instances of violation and towards the successful incorporation of international provisions into domestic legislation.

Credible reports of systematic torture in Ethiopia indicate the inadequacy of determining human rights adherence through the level of domestic legal incorporation. Without subsequent enforcement, the codification of these provisions into law simply widens the gap between rhetoric and reality. Shadowing Ethiopia’s submission to the Committee, Human Rights Watch (HRW) collated a submission to document the prevalence of violations and indicate a pattern of torture to suppress political opposition and dissent. The report premises its overview in stating that torture “has been used by Ethiopia’s police, military, and other members of the security forces to punish a spectrum of perceived dissenters, including university students, members of the political opposition, and alleged supporters of insurgent groups, as well as alleged terrorist suspects.”(8) This conclusion is corroborated by the findings of the African Rights Monitor (ARM) report, offered to the Committee alongside HRW’s submission.(9) 

Fundamentally, the HRW report notes, in contradiction of Ethiopia’s submission, that “the frequency, ubiquity, and patterns of abuse by agents of the central and state Governments demonstrate systematic mistreatment involving commanding officers, not random activity by rogue soldiers and police officers” and that “in several cases, documented by Human Rights Watch, military commanders participated personally in torture.”(10) The endemic nature of torture as a weapon of politics and the suggested complicity of state actors indicates a widespread and pervasive knowledge of these violations. It also contradicts Ethiopia’s assertion that a “documentation of factors, and difficulties affecting the full and effective realization of the Convention is not readily available.”(11) Whether or not the purported lack of official documentation is an accurate assessment, the evidence of abuse carried out by state actors suggests that even those in the upper-echelons of Government must be aware that violations are taking place. As such, the Government’s failure to meet its obligations under the CAT and protect its citizens against “any act by which severe pain or suffering whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person”(12) is substantial.

Torture as a weapon of politics

The most recent human rights report issued by the US State Department confirms the political nature of Ethiopia’s violations of the CAT. It indicates that “opposition political party leaders reported frequent, systematic abuse and intimidation of their members and supporters by police and local militias.” Also noted is the fact that “victims of such abuse did not seek redress from police and other criminal justice authorities for fear of provoking retaliation.”(13) With reported methods of torture indicating a willingness to apply the most heinous of methods in the targeting of political opposition, the fear of retaliation is highly problematic. Purported complicity of local police forces adds to the unwillingness to report abuse. HRW describes the brutality and multiplicity of torture methods employed by state actors: “repeated and severe beatings with sticks, electric cables, rifle butts, iron bars, or other hard instruments is the most frequent method of abuse. Occasionally, police and soldiers resort to other methods, such as immersing victims’ heads in water; beating and kicking victims while they hang bound upside down; tying bottles of water to testicles; and forcing detainees to run or crawl barefoot over sharp gravel for several hours at a time.”(14) First-hand accounts offered by the ARM report confirm the frequency with which varied torture methods are employed to obtain confessions or simply break down political dissent.(15)

While protestors make the most consistent of targets for abuse,(16) attempts to intimidate and persecute specific members of the political opposition are prevalent, particularly in pre-election periods. HRW reports instances in which opposition members have been killed as a result of torture and abuse. In particular, it cites the claims of the All-Amhara People’s Organisation (AAPO) that “one of its members had died as a result of severe bearing while detained. The Government claimed he had died of tuberculosis but AAPO noted that his family had not been informed he was hospitalized and had not been able to collect his body.”(17)
With consistent reports of torture as invoked to address, but ironically feeding, political instability in Ethiopia, it follows that use of methods that violate the CAT would be particularly prevalent in politically-contentious regions of the country. ARM confirms that Somali residents of the post-conflict Ogaden region and the contested Oromo area’s ethnic group are highly vulnerable to abuse from Ethiopian military actors. The report notes that “since 2007, the Ethiopian army has significantly scaled up its offensive against the 4.4 million residents of the Ogaden, killing thousands of civilians and committing countless instances of torture in the process.”(18) Further, the fear of insurgent groups, particularly the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), has provoked the use of torture by authorities as a means to garner confessions of membership or the provision of support to rebels.(19) The recent US State Department Report invokes an instance in which one individual was forced to sign a confession of membership to an insurgent group, following severe and repeated beatings. It notes that upon release, he “was hospitalized for severe nerve-ending damage, hearing damage, and back injuries(20) Interestingly, when the case was brought to court, the judge refused to acknowledge the attack as politically-motivated, despite contradictory claims by the victim.(21)
The reports collated by both international monitors and NGOs indicate a clear pattern of politically-motivated violations of the CAT. With the Ethiopian administration asserting a consistent position of denial,(22) and in light of the apparent complicity of state officials in acts of torture, there is an undeniable failure on the part of the state to recognise its international human rights obligations. In light of the evidence, the Committee against Torture has made a number of recommendations to Ethiopia, in the hope that progress towards elimination of the practice will be witnessed.

Recommendations and their realisation

In responding to Ethiopia’s initial report and the subsequent shadow reports from ARM and HRW among others, the Committee against Torture gives central credence to the reports of torture documented by the NGOs. In noting the widespread use of torture, as well as the impunity of individuals suspected of involvement in committing acts that violate international norms, the Committee issued a number of recommendations to rectify the prevalence of the crime. Specifically intended to address the widespread invocation of torture, the Committee recommends that “the State party take immediate and effective measures to investigate, prosecute and punish all acts of torture and to ensure that torture is not used by law enforcement personnel, including by unambiguously reaffirming the absolute prohibition of torture and publicly condemning practices of torture, especially by the police, prison officers and members of the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF).”(23) With regards to enforcement, the Committee states that reaffirmation of the principles outlined in the CAT should be “accompanied by a clear warning that anyone committing such acts or otherwise complicit or participating in torture will be held personally responsible before the law for such acts and will be subject to criminal prosecution and appropriate penalties.”(24) While these recommendations are important in giving expression to international concerns, they represent an almost verbatim reiteration of the commitments already outlined in the CAT. With torture as a weapon against political dissent representing a pervasive problem in Ethiopia, concrete and measurable steps towards its elimination are necessary in order to garner any momentum towards progress.

While the Committee does issue concrete recommendations with regards to legal safeguards and conditions of detention among others,(25) the fundamental issue of eliminating torture as a systemic weapon of political suppression remains subject to general normative statements. Without a means of enforcement, the Committee is undeniably restricted in its ability to guarantee progress and adherence. Ethiopia’s reluctance to submit its initial report, alongside its continued failure to offer the Committee follow-up information and comments within one year of its concluding remarks,(26) indicates a determined commitment to its position of denial.

The issue is surely one of political context. Documentary evidence regarding the use of torture to suppress political opposition points to pervasive instability, or fear thereof, as motivating the widespread invocation of brutal and inhuman methods by security officials. Torture is cheap and, as indicated by the multiplicity of methods employed, can be performed by anyone; it makes for a convenient and effective method of detainment and interrogation. With such incentives, particularly prevalent at times of crisis, commitments to a treaty that lacks enforcement capability are little more than a smokescreen. Ethiopia has one of the most turbulent internal environments; the fear of a governmental downfall, perceived threats to security from insurgent groups, and high levels of regional instability,(27) facilitate a situation in which the Government rules on the basis of constant trepidation. Any real hope of progress with regards to the elimination of torture must surely address these underlying issues. Unfortunately, there is no easy means to eliminate Ethiopia’s perceived threats; it is, however, a cycle that must be broken. The state’s employment of torture as a weapon of politics may be viewed to simply perpetuate the instability that it is intended to combat; its continued usage has failed to achieve the political security that the Government seeks so desperately.


The answer, then, may be one of combined regional and international pressure. With the African Union asserting an increasingly dominant role, demands that Ethiopia adhere to its obligations or suffer political and economic sanctions may be effective. Similar methods on an international level might also serve to provoke enforcement of the CAT. This alone, however, will not be adequate. Rather the approach must be one of combined emphasis; it must address the use of torture within the context in which it takes place. The Committee’s reduction of the issue and its generalised recommendations will undoubtedly fail to garner any significant progress. Regional and international efforts must frame demands that Ethiopia eliminate the use of torture within wider efforts to stabilise the region. With election monitors questioning the true nature of Ethiopia’s ‘democracy’,(28) it is also vital to work for internal political reform. A Government based on a fear of political opposition lacks the incentives to execute democracy and justice in the appropriate form. Where the reports of HRW and ARM succeed is the placing of the pervasive use of torture in its political context; any hope of progress must similarly understand it as a mechanism of politics and complexity. A simplistic understanding of the issue or recommendations for its elimination serves only to add bulk to the rhetoric.

Ethiopia is facing an uphill battle. It is subject to one of the most complex and turbulent domestic environments in Africa. There is, however, hope of progress. A concerted effort at both international and domestic levels to address the pervasive instability and apprehension expressed by the Government is the only means through which the country can move away from these barbaric practices and recognise its obligations under the CAT. When citizens feel protected and enjoy the rights which they are due, the cycle of fear and instability will fall apart; only then will the door to democracy and progress truly be open.


(1) Contact Laura Clarke through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Rights In Focus Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2)  See, for example, ‘Protocol additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts (Protocol II)’, 1977,
(3) ‘Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 19 of the Convention: Ethiopia’s report for the Committee against torture’, 28 July 2009,
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Ibid.
(8) ‘Human Rights Watch’s submission to the Committee against torture on Ethiopia’, Human Rights Watch report, September 2010,
(9) ‘Submission from African Rights Monitor to the Committee against torture in its 45th session’, African Rights Monitor report, November 2010,
(10) ‘Human Rights Watch’s submission to the Committee against torture on Ethiopia’, Human Rights Watch report, September 2010,
(11) ‘Consideration of reports submitted by states parties under article 19 of the Convention: Ethiopia’s report for the Committee against torture’, 28 July 2009,
(12) ‘Convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’, United Nations, 1984,
(13) ‘2010 country report on human rights practices: Ethiopia’, U.S. Department of State, 8 April 2011,
(14) ‘Human Rights Watch’s submission to the Committee against torture on Ethiopia’, Human Rights Watch report, September 2010,
(15) ‘Submission from African Rights Monitor to the Committee against torture in its 45th session’, African Rights Monitor report, November 2010,
(16) See, for example, descriptions of the arrest of 3,000 students, following the April 2001 protest at Addis Ababa University. HRW reports that “the students were ordered to run races barefoot or crawl on their knees over gravel for long distances, during which the police beat students’ backs, shoulders, and buttocks with rifle butts.” In ‘Human Rights Watch’s submission to the Committee against torture on Ethiopia’, Human Rights Watch report, September 2010,
(17) ‘Human Rights Watch’s submission to the Committee against torture on Ethiopia’, Human Rights Watch report, September 2010,
(18) ‘Submission from African Rights Monitor to the Committee against torture in its 45th session’, African Rights Monitor report, November 2010,
(19) Ibid.
(20) ‘2010 country report on human rights practices: Ethiopia’, U.S. Department of State, 8 April 2011,
(21) Ibid.
(22) ‘Human Rights Watch’s submission to the Committee against torture on Ethiopia’, Human Rights Watch report, September 2010,
(23) ‘Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 19 of the Convention: Concluding observations of the Committee against torture’, November 2010,
(24) Ibid.
(25) Ibid.
(26) ‘Reminder’, Rapporteur for follow-up on concluding observations of the United Nations Committee against torture, 1 December 2011,
(27) ‘Ethiopia profile’, BBC, 18 January 2012,
(28) Ibid.

Written on Wednesday, 02 May 2012 08:06 by Laura Clarke (1)

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