Ethiopia: Daniel Bekele, a rights defender or government stooge?

“I hope this report presents such a unique opportunity to start a new chapter in the history of this political crisis,” Daniel Bekele said as he recently presented an investigation into alleged human rights violations in Tigray.

Ethiopia’s Human Rights Commission (EHRC), headed by Daniel Bekele, collaborated with the United Nations (UN) in conducting the research.

“It’s very worrying,” the human rights activist added. “The conflict is expanding. We are receiving more and more reports of abuses and violations.”

Daniel said he hopes the report will encourage greater accountability as the Tigray conflict continues to escalate.

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Naming and shaming rights violators

Ongoing fighting between Ethiopian forces backed by Eritrean soldiers and the TPLF fighters, whose party once controlled Ethiopia’s government, has killed thousands and displaced more than 2 million people since November 2020.

According to Daniel, all sides need to answer for atrocities committed during the war.

“The conclusion is that all parties in the conflict, including the Ethiopian forces and Eritrean forces and the Tigrayan forces, along with their allied militia, are credibly implicated with serious human rights violations and abuses,” Daniel said.

In an exclusive interview with DW in early November, Daniel said that those atrocities include deliberately targeting civilians, extrajudicial killings, torture and displacement, as well as brutal sexual and gender-based violence.

For his commitment to upholding human rights and speaking out against injustice, Germany awarded Daniel Bekele the 2021 German Africa Prize.

The award is the highest of its kind in Germany and recognizes outstanding African personalities who are committed to peace, reconciliation, and social progress.

From ‘prisoner of conscience’ to rights defender

Born on February 17, 1967, Daniel Bekele earned a bachelor’s degree in law in 1989. He attained a master’s degree in development studies from Addis Ababa University in 2001 and later another master’s degree in law from Oxford University.

The former EPRDF Ethiopian government arrested and detained Daniel in 2005 after he criticized the controversial procedures surrounding that year’s general election. At that time, the TPLF wielded immense power in the ruling coalition.

Before he was taken away, he was badly beaten by unidentified armed men. Rights group Amnesty International described him as a prisoner of conscience.

“When they put him in jail and came up with all kinds of legal systems to dissolve civil society activities, I was outraged,” Fikre Zewde, a friend of Daniel’s, told DW. “But [Daniel] was very calm. I always admire that calmness.”

He was released two and a half years later and went on to become the director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division in 2011.

“I grew up at a time when it was a brutal military dictatorship and at a time when lots of people were arbitrarily detained, killed, beaten up, tortured,” Daniel told DW.

“I have seen my own father and mother arbitrarily being detained. And then that military dictatorship was overthrown by an armed rebel movement, and it started an era of hope, but it ended up in another period of political repression.”

In 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appointed Daniel to lead the country’s human rights commission.

Criticized for cozying up to the government

Under his leadership, the commission has faced many criticisms — most notably from the TPLF — for being too soft on Abiy’s administration. Daniel’s critics argue that because he was imprisoned by the TPLF, he cannot be impartial in the ongoing conflict.

A video posted on YouTube by anti-government supporters purports that Daniel sided with the government during the 2020 Oromo protests following the murder of Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa.

The government responded by deploying a heavy security presence. According to subtitles on the video, Daniel defended the government’s right to restore law and order. At least 160 people were killed in the violent protests, according to Amnesty International.

However, other observers have noted that Daniel also denounces the wrongdoings of the federal government.

For example, the commission published findings into human rights violations in various parts of Ethiopia in May. The investigation sounded the alarm on the poor conditions in police stations in country’s most populous state of Oromia — also the home state of Prime Minister Abiy.

“Such perceptions of bias and criticism against institutions that do human rights work is not something unique to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission,” Daniel said. “We put out on a wide range of human rights violations by all kinds of actors, including state security forces.”

For years, Ethiopia has struggled with inherited complex ethnic and political crises, which ultimately plunged the country into a wave of violent conflict leading to widespread human rights atrocities.

Earlier this year, the US alleged ongoing ethnic cleansing in Tigray— accusations the Ethiopian government refuted.

Tough times for human rights

In early November, the Ethiopian government announced a country-wide state of emergency. The move gives security officers greater powers to arrest and detain suspects, with many observers concerned that it could further legitimize human rights violations.

But Daniel Bekele remains undeterred and claims he will call out any party that commits human rights abuses. He said the commission had already submitted recommendations to the government and international partners to ensure accountability and the rehabilitation of victims.

“These recommendations search for a sustainable and peaceful solution for the political crisis, the human rights crisis, and the humanitarian crisis that Ethiopia faces,” Daniel said.

Edited by: Ineke Mules and Benita van Eyssen


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