Ethiopia's Zone9 Bloggers Face the Limits of International Law

Zone9 members together in Addis Ababa, 2012. Photo used with permission.

Zone9 members together in Addis Ababa, 2012. Photo used with permission.

This post was jointly published with the World Policy Journal blog.

The international human rights system is broken – or perhaps it never worked at all.

In case after case, citizens’ human rights are violated under the national laws of their respective countries, despite the existence of international human rights commitments in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration, and by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organization of American States, the African Commission, and others. The International Criminal Court has little say concerning any but the most egregious of international human rights violations, and member states have wide latitude to dispense justice as they see fit.

For those who live in countries that fail to provide or enforce their own laws protecting freedom of expression, international principles have rarely provided actual recourse. Today, this is the case with the independent Ethiopian blogger collective known as Zone9.

In April of this year, the government of Ethiopia arrested six members of Zone9 along with three affiliated journalists in Addis Ababa. They were held for months without a formal charge and were denied the ability to communicate. Testimony from Befeqadu Hailu, one of the accused bloggers who was smuggled out of prison in August, as well as statements in court, allege mistreatment and frequent beatings. Informally, the nine were held on accusations of “working with foreign organizations that claim to be human rights activists and…receiving finance to incite public violence through social media.” 

In July, the Zone9 prisoners were charged under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009 for receiving support from political opposition organizations, defined formally by the government as terrorists, and receiving training from international activists in email encryption and data security from the Tactical Technology Collective, a group that helps journalists and activists protect themselves from digital surveillance.

The Zone9 bloggers joined other media outlets targeted under similar laws, including Eskinder Nega, who had reported on recent Arab uprisings and the possibility of similar uprisings taking place in Ethiopia. He was arrested and charged with the “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of terrorism and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

International appeals from human rights advocacy organizations have had little effect on the case. In May, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay issued a statement explaining,

The fight against terrorism cannot serve as an excuse to intimidate and silence journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and members of civil society organizations. And working with foreign human rights organizations cannot be considered a crime.

Additionally, seven international human rights and press freedom organizations pressed the African Commission and the United Nations in an urgent appeal to intervene in the case against Zone9. The appeal focused on the lack of clear charges and failure to allow the defendants adequate legal representation.

Nani Jansen, a lawyer for the Media Legal Defence Initiative and the lead signatory in the appeal, writes in an email that both the African Commission and the UN “operate under the cover of confidentiality in the early stages of these matters.” She continues:

When they follow up with a Government, this is done without informing the outside world. Only months and months (often over a year) later, these exchanges with a Government get published in the mechanism's report to its supervisory body.

Thus any intervention joins the rest of those in the cone of silence that is Zone9—hidden from public scrutiny or participation.

Even if these bodies do follow up with the Ethiopian government, their recourse is limited. In an article on the urgent appeal, Jansen notes that the African Commission can condemn the arrests in a resolution, that both organizations’ rapporteurs can request official visits to Ethiopia to investigate, and that Ethiopia, as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, would be obligated to honor such a request. But even should such requests be made, and investigations conducted, there is little chance of enforcement of hypothetical findings on the Ethiopian government.

Since the appeal, the Ethiopian government has proceeded with charges against the accused. The latest details on the trial can be found on the Trial Tracker Blog, a site run by people close to the defendants.

Public attempts to highlight the Ethiopian government's transgressions against human rights such as the #Freezone9bloggers social media campaign have an indirect effect. They seek to shame the Ethiopian government to ensure better treatment for the prisoners. They also seek to pressure international organizations and Ethiopia's allies such as the United States, for whom Ethiopia is a critical military and security partner. The hope is that those organizations will in turn apply political pressure on Ethiopia to free the Zone9 defendants.

The implementation of international commitments seems to rest primarily upon a negotiated process of politics, not a functioning and enforceable system of law. Considering the ease with which national law in Ethiopia is employed or ignored for political ends, it is a grim irony that only political pressure can hope to resolve the case in their favor.


  • stewie

    They are not real journalist but ethnic agitators and political hacks. Ethiopia is a sovereign nation so your international law means nothing. And these so called “civil society organizations” and “human rights organizations” are nothing but western political operators, whose job is to destabilize countries.

    Sorry no one is beating your evil no more.

    • ud6

      So you are saying ‘working with a human rights organisation’ is a valid criminal charge? Sounds like you are working for the Ethiopian government. You are correct in that international law is weak and difficult to enforce, but human rights abuses cause the overthrowing of governments and wars. Also, being a sovereign nation does not allow your country to do as it wishes with its citizens. Your argument is nothing more than the argument of a police state. People are expected to have rights, and if the government are infringing on those rights, they should expect repercussions.

      • stewie

        Yes, working with a “human rights” organization can be a valid criminal, When that organization works against the countries interest and laws. What the governments does and doesn’t do to it citizens is between the government and the people, not outsiders.

  • Guest

    @ stewie, we are also Ethiopians who are living in fear of the brutal and barbaric human rights violator government. We demand free and respected law that all citizens trust. Because you are the cadre of the government and get the benefit out of it, millions are suffering and lacking justicy. Because you came out of jungle and experienced with jungle law we can not be forced to live up to that. We demand the flourishing of democratic process, freedom of media and speech that are well organized, disciplined and respect law- not the law that the government declare every morning with a 99.6% loyal cadre MP. We need to see people who are elected by the people’s genuine vote not by enforcing in 5 to 1 community mobilization system.

    • stewie

      First of all, you don’t know shiit about me so stop assuming. Second, If it was about democratic and justice I will be all in favor of it, but it is not, it is about power and privilege.

      • ud6

        ok, so tell us about yourself (without swearing). Why do you believe it is about power and privilege of these people, and not about the power and privilege of the government that has clearly a trumped up charge of ‘supporting human rights organisations’? I say clearly, because many people in the government itself has worked with human rights organisations and yet didn’t send anyone to prison. Is the justice system somehow different for them? Please, give us some information to allow us to see if your argument is valid, because it doesn’t appear to be so far.

        • stewie

          You don’t seem to have any real understanding of Ethiopians political situation and ethnic conflict. It is all about dominating and subjecting of other ethnic groups by power. I think you are a westerner, because you come off as very naive and idealistic. The government is the only thing that is holding everything together, and you can’t really have or expect a genuine democracy In such countries. There is nothing magical about democracy itself, It is tyranny of the majority ethnic group. I argue the government heavy hands is not only good but necessary because the alternative is a million times worst. And the justice system is always difference for the elite in any given country, that always being the case…

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  • […] chose to call themselves “Zone 9 Bloggers″, a name referring to the zones of the notorious Kality prison, where political prisoners and […]

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