Allo Awol: human rights defender from Ethiopia

Allo Awol, advocating from outside Ethiopia, raises his voice against the government's use of legal systems for oppression, highlighting the critical role of international human rights mechanisms in supporting change.

Allo sees himself as a voice for human rights defenders in Ethiopia; a voice for those on the ground who resist oppressive Government policies and struggle to bring about progressive change and transformation in the face of adversity.

‘Under current circumstances, being outside Ethiopia presents both an opportunity and a responsibility to speak out against the Government’s authoritarian policies, particularly the increasing abuse of the constitutional order, the judicial system, discourses around development and counter-terrorism. I speak for the victims of human rights violations in Ethiopia, the victims of the State.’

On 7 March 2016, Allo took part in the joint side event on the protection of human rights defenders working on economic, cultural and social (ESC) rights, held by ISHR along with 8 other regional and international NGOs. The discussion examined risks faced by economic, social and cultural rights (ESC rights) defenders and good practices to strengthen their protection, building on those identified by the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders in his recent report presented to the 31st session of the Human Rights Council.

During the side event, Allo provided important views on ESC rights defenders in Ethiopia, as well as good practices to protect them – emphasising for example the crucial role of donors, development partners and international financial institutions in ensuring the protection of defenders.

Growing up in Ethiopia, Allo recalls the oppression faced by people as a result of the existing political system that did not reflect the plurality and diversity of the community. He also vividly remembers childhood stories of individual citizens and entire social groups being excluded and marginalised because of their social or ethnic background as a result of Government policy.

The use of courts for oppression  

Allo’s activism commenced after he started his PhD project which explored the different ways in which legal institutions, such as courts, can be used to advance oppressive political agendas.

He claims that there has been a discerning mobilisation of the legal system since the 2005 election to eliminate political adversaries of the regime and those suspected of holding critical views from the political scene. Rather than being spaces of truth and justice, courts became weapons. The Government learned that it can easily secure its oppressive goals through trumped up charges presided over by ‘kangaroo courts’, without having to exclusively resort to violent measures.

‘Far from being a platform for revealing the truth and determining guilt and innocence, the legal system in key political cases functioned to justify and rationalise State policies aimed at marginalising and excluding those opposed to the system.’

Freedom of information is essential

The media landscape in Ethiopia is extremely repressive. Journalists and bloggers are threatened with prosecution and routinely subjected to spurious charges, giving the country the shameful distinction of having the highest number of journalists in jail in Africa.  Allo feels that this imposes great responsibility on those who can to speak out publically on issues faced by defenders within Ethiopia.

‘The Government is scared of independent and critical voices. It does not tolerate dissenting views and goes a long way to silence them and force them into capitulation. People are dying for the right to be heard.’

Allo explains that the decimation of independent media in Ethiopia means that social media is the only alternative tool available to defenders to disseminate their message globally. Although internet penetration in Ethiopia stands at less than 3%, social media enabled the emergence of a thriving community of citizen journalists.

‘Human rights defenders and citizen journalists at home try to overcome local challenges by coordinating efforts with activists based abroad. Technology enables them to capture images and videos of events as they happen and provide a visual evidence, not just claims and allegations.’

As an activist, Allo tries to amplify these voices. Since human rights have become such a powerful discourse in global politics, Allo makes a strategic use of this framework to ensure the audibility and visibility of defenders in Ethiopia. He calls this a rights based political intervention. Human rights norms, discourses and institutions constitute a particular kind of political repertoire that creates opportunities for the voiceless to articulate their grievances and sufferings against the State and non-State actors.

Engaging with international human rights mechanisms

Allo actively engages with international human rights mechanisms to drive reforms for his community. Allo concedes that although international and regional legal mechanisms are useful, they are of limited utility for Ethiopians at the local level.

Allo identified further limitations of international mechanisms, including that responses are slow and procedures are convoluted. Despite this, Allo remains steadfast in pursuing his objective, taking a broad view and interacting with numerous UN mechanisms.

‘What the UN human rights system does for victims of human rights violations is provide them with a space in which they can be heard; enabling human rights violations against marginalised people to be incorporated into the discourse of international institutions.’

Allo and his colleagues work towards access to justice for vulnerable individuals, assisting them to effectively present their cases of human rights violations. The aim is to rebalance the existing powers at play.

‘We want to use international institutions as a platform to counter the narratives used by the Government to slander and delegitimise those who struggle for change and transformation.’

As a panellist during ISHR’s side-event, Allo faced a hostile intervention from a member of the Ethiopian Government, who alleged that the side event was ‘unprofessional’ for addressing country situations. Allo confessed that he is not surprised by such a response – but found the comment a sobering embarrassment for Ethiopia as a whole, as it underscored the extent of the Government’s intolerance to opposing views.  

A country in which all walk tall

When asked about his own future, Allo puts the well-being of his country and its people as a priotity.

‘I would like to see a country that is more democratic, more inclusive, more equal and more just. I would like to see an Ethiopia in which everyone can live side by side in peace, where no one feels excluded or marginalised; a country in which we all walk tall, feeling dignified.’