OPEN LETTER TO UN SECRETARY GENERAL RE: SITUATION IN OROMIA, ETHIOPIA
Mr. António Guterres,
New York, N.Y. 10017
Dear Mr. Secretary-General,
The events unfolding in Ethiopia are deeply troubling. Following the assassination of Haacaalu Hundeessaa, a popular artist and activist, by unknown assailants in the capital, Addis Ababa, late on Monday night, mass demonstrations erupted across the country. Tension is very high and tens of thousands of protesters are on the streets to express their outrage about the senseless killing of their beloved icon. Prominent opposition leaders from Oromia have been arrested. Internet is shut down as are some private media outlets.
Evidence is sketchy and intermittent, but there are credible reports indicating widespread upheavals, including violent confrontations. The Government’s attempt to restore calm seems to have had little impact. In fact, it appears that the reaction of the security forces has deepened the frustration and anger of the grief-stricken masses. According to Human Rights Watch, the authorities’ heavy-handed crackdown ‘could make a volatile situation even worse.’ State media reported a death toll approaching one hundred. Other sources quote numbers that are much higher. The situation is such that things can get out of control easily. And the fact that the government blocked access to internet has added another layer of complication and anxiety.
The young and talented artist whose life was brutally cut short hailed from the Oromo people. Although they are the demographic majority, the Oromo people have been at the receiving end of decades of repression, humiliation, and slaughter. Haacaalu Hundeessaa’s cold-blooded murder has touched a raw nerve, deepening and further inflaming the historic grievances and resentment felt by the Oromo nation. This came on the top of the horrendous killing of Ariti Shununde by the security forces weeks back. The 32-year old Oromo businessman was shot in the back because his phone rang, according to Amnesty International.
The Oromo people feel that they are being targeted. And if the Oromo people feel threatened and marked for collective punishment, this could lead to unforeseen large-scale communal strife, even civil war. All citizens and all communities could be adversely affected, especially if law and order break down completely. Situations like these create environments in which purveyors of hatred and bigotry exploit and whip up primordial passions.
Ethiopia is a complex country with a long history of authoritarian regimes deeply rooted in a culture of violence and epidemic of protracted conflicts and repression. The latest manifestation of this grim reality became evident between 2007 and 2017 when the Ethiopian Defense Forces cordoned off the vast plains of the Ogaden and turned them into killing fields on the pretext that the government was fighting insurgents. Government forces perpetrated what Human Rights Watch meticulously documented as war crimes and crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial killings, mass incarceration, widespread torture, burning of villages, rape as a weapon of war, economic blockade and starvation. The whole infrastructure and assets of the Ethiopian State were mobilized and deployed to target entire communities and mark them for collective persecution and mass murder. Tens of thousands were slaughtered with impunity.
The UN and wider international community fielded missions, conducted surveys, compiled reports, dispatched diplomatic cables to their headquarters, occasionally held muted press conferences, and engaged Ethiopian authorities in meaningless encounters. However, their preferred method swung between “quite diplomacy” that suited the government and silence. Some put themselves in situations in which they had come close to being complicit or compromised. I mention this because similar, indeed identical, scenarios are evident in some parts of Oromia. Innocent people are being intimidated, imprisoned, or killed by the security forces. The Ethiopian State suffers from a perennial affliction that causes it to see conspiracies and external enemies everywhere whenever it confronts determined homegrown opposition. It’s quick to label its own citizens and communities as agents of external foes as a pretext to violently suppress or even eliminate dissent.
With the 2019 Nobel Peace Laureate at the helm, poor and traumatized Ethiopians have hoped for the breaking of a new dawn, one that is heavy with promise. However, the ugly demons that have violently convulsed this country for decades seem to have quickly resumed their bloody and wrecking business. We fear the worst.
This is an urgent appeal to you to do everything humanly possible to closely monitor the dangerous and potentially calamitous situation unfolding in Ethiopia. As an intergovernmental organization formed by and accountable to sovereign states, the United Nations is severely constrained to directly intervene in the internal affairs of individual countries, although such action is permissible in situations where mass slaughter is imminent and international peace and security is at stake.
The state of affairs currently prevailing in Ethiopia may not seem too alarming to warrant the immediate involvement of the United Nations Security Council for now. However, it is important enough to deserve your attention and leadership. The UN has not yet fully recovered from the shame and humiliation of being associated with the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda. We hope that complacency, indifference or tragic errors of judgement would not lead the UN to be saddled with another debacle, this time in Ethiopia.
The Oromo people need protection. All vulnerable communities in Ethiopia need protection. As the world’s Chief Diplomat, you are well positioned to mobilize and motivate the international community to help Ethiopia pull back from the abyss.
May peace, justice and freedom prevail in Ethiopia and everywhere where tyranny has a foothold.