The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Ethiopia is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Ethiopia is not a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Ethiopia is a State Party to the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Article 11 provides as follows:
Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.
Ethiopia is a signatory but not a party to the 1998 Protocol on the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Under Article 30 of the 1995 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia:
1. Everyone has the right to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peaceably and unarmed, and to petition. Appropriate regulations may be made in the interest of public convenience relating to the location of open-air meetings and the route of movement of demonstrators or, for the protection of democratic rights, public morality and peace during such a meeting or demonstration.
2. This right does not exempt from liability under laws enacted to protect the well-being of the youth or the honour and reputation of individuals, and laws prohibiting any propaganda for war and any public expression of opinions intended to injure human dignity.
As the Civic Freedom Monitor reports, the primary national legislation governing assemblies in Ethiopia is the 1991 Peaceful Demonstration and Public Political Meeting Procedure Proclamation No. 3/1991 (Proclamation No. 3/1991).
According to the Proclamation, organisers of peaceful demonstrations and public political meetings must provide at least 48 hours' advance notification to the authorities. The application must include information about the demonstration or public political meeting: its objective; place, date and time and estimated length; estimated number and kind of participants; whether any assistance is required from the government; and the names and addresses of the organisers.
Silence from the government can be considered as acceptance of the demonstration. The Proclamation does not, though, provide for an appeal procedure in case permission is denied. In addition, Article 6(2) of the Proclamation accords wide discretion to the government to refuse to permit a peaceful demonstration or political meeting at a certain time or location. According to the provision, peaceful demonstrations or political meetings may not be held if the government office “is of the opinion” that “in order to maintain peace and security” it is preferable for the peaceful demonstration or political meeting to be held at some other time or place.
There is also a list of prohibited places and content. According to Article 7 of the Proclamation, no demonstrations may take place within 100 metres of specified buildings, such as embassies, churches or mosques, and marketplaces. It is also not allowed to hold an assembly within 500 meters of the military bases and security offices.
Article 487 of the Criminal Code of Ethiopia provides that any person who makes, utters, distributes or cries out seditious or threatening remarks or displays images or drawings of a seditious or threatening nature in any public place or meeting is punishable with simple imprisonment not exceeding six months or a fine not exceeding 500 Birr.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and prioportionate to that purpose.
By virtue of the 1961 Code of Criminal Procedure, when making an arrest, if a criminal suspect forcibly resists or attempts to evade the arrest, a police officer "may use all means proportionate to the circumstances to effect the arrest".Art. 56(4), 1961 Code of Criminal Procedure.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
According to a 2012 Council of Ministers Regulation, a police officer may use only where other measures short of firearms are insufficient to:
a. Protect his own life or the life of others from death or from grave bodily injury;
b. Apprehend a dangerous criminal suspect or to restrain a suspect or convicted prisoner from escaping.Art. 45(2), Federal Police Officers Administration Council of Ministers Regulation No. 268/2012.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
Ethiopia has not come before the Human Rights Committee since 2011.
In the context of its 2019 Universal Periodic Review under the UN Human Rights Council, Ethiopia affirmed that: "Members and leadership of opposition political parties now have complete freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly."
In its 2015 Concluding Observations on Ethiopia, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights expressed its concern about the "lack of investigations and reprisals for law enforcement agents who allegedly repressed protesters resulting in deaths during the 2005, 2012 and 2013 protests".
Views of Civil Society
CIVICUS reported in 2020 that mass protests erupted over killing of popular musician Hachalu Hundessa with several leading opposition politicians arrested in relation to the protests.
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Ethiopia:
Severe restrictions on freedom of assembly imposed by the EPRDF government in the past eased somewhat in 2018, as demonstrations were more frequently allowed to occur without interference. However, protests were still sometimes violently dispersed by security forces. In August, for example, police opened fire on a group of demonstrators protesting the looting of property owned by ethnic minorities in the Somali Region, killing four people.
A government-imposed state of emergency, which was announced in February in response to the escalating ethnic violence and the resignation of former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, effectively banned public protests until it was lifted in June, two months earlier than planned. The internet was blocked several times in 2018 in response to mass demonstrations, hampering their organization. In September, mobile internet was blocked for three days in Addis Ababa in the wake of protests.
As the Civic Freedom Monitor reports,
On 23 January 2018, seven people were killed when security forces discharged live bullets on festival goers who were taking part in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's Epiphany celebrations. The shootings reportedly occurred when the security forces tried to stop people from chanting anti-government songs. The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a press briefing that the Amhara regional state government should ensure that its promised probe into the matter is "prompt, independent, impartial and effective."