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Factors affecting Human Rights in the Horn of Africa

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By Fitsum Achamyeleh Alemu[1]

Human rights are not simply legal particularities; they are all-out social phenomena that existed in the sphere of economies, power relationships, social, cultural, and private life. The philosophical roots of the concept of human rights are found in the liberal democratic traditions of Western Europe — a tradition which is itself is the product of Greek philosophy, Roman law, the Judeo — Christian tradition, Humanism, the reformation, and the Age of Reason. [1]

Human Rights in the Horn of AfricaHuman Rights issues are getting more attention than ever before. This is not necessarily because more human rights violations are happening today than 30–40 years ago, but things have changed profoundly.

First, more than ever before, we are living in a globalized, interconnected world. Second, we have a new, innovative, and progressive younger generation that is more active and more forceful than the previous generation in engaging in activities to correct what they see as injustice. Third, the unprecedented role played by citizen journalism has exposed underreported human rights abuses, plight of refugees on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. The videos and pictures posted on social media have made an enormous impact and influenced international media, policymakers, and governments to change course. Fourth, despite its limited effectiveness, the UN has been more active than ever before.

The Horn of African countries[2] are signatories of the UN Conventions on Human and Civil rights and also the African Human Rights Charter. Nevertheless, they are the epic center of gross human rights violations. Below are some of the factors that make this Region the worst human rights violator.

Historical Conditions and Relations

After the slave trade, the colonizers direct and indirect rules left their roots in post-colonial Africa. By applying the “divide and rule” policy they favored one ethnic group to hold political and economic power. Once they left, this concentration of power led to insurgencies, multiple coup d’état, civil and ethnic wars, and gross human rights violations. It is a cliché to say that the colonizers were only interested in exploiting the natural resources of their colonies. Enjoying multi-party democracy and advanced public administration back home, they ruled their colonies harshly and taught the same to the post-colonial leaders as the best and only method of ruling.

Even after the end of colonization, they have continued playing an important role in the political life of their former colonies by supporting friendly governments or guerrilla fighters — irrespective of their human rights records –because they uphold their interest. They argued that ending economic assistant “will hurt the poor more than the government.” We have seen France’ role in Djibouti, the UK’s in Kenya and Sudan, and Italy’s in former Somalia and Eritrea.

Geopolitical Conditions

The Region’s unique geographical location has attracted the attention of regional powerhouses- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Israel- and big world powers, like the USA and Russia. In this new scramble for the region, the military and civil dictatorial rulers enjoyed the economic, military, political, and diplomatic support from these Middle East powerhouses as well as the East and West. Armed with a variety of support, the rulers ruled as they wished crashing any dissent or opposition leading to the deterioration of human rights and the emergence of guerrilla and separatist groups. Ironically, the same outside forces also supported guerilla and separatist groups as long as they supported their strategic and political interests. This, in turn, made the region an epicenter of civil wars.

Political culture

Political culture comprises of values, formal rules, traditions as well as customs. [3]It relates to political groups and guides political behaviors. [4] It is also an “independent element of the political system which includes political outlooks, theories, political knowledge, and distinguished political acts.”[5]Advanced political culture values and promotes tolerance, pluralism and peaceful arrangement of conflicts, and respect for human rights. A backward political culture disallows debate or a formation of political parties. Where there is no debate, political problems are solved by weapons with the cost of many lives and economic destruction.

That is the case in the Horn of Africa. Most of the politicians of the region do consider their counterpart as an enemy who should be destroyed. “The one who is not with us is against us” principle is valued here. Therefore, the region’s pro-democracy and human rights activist, elites in the law, the academy, and the press, are in unsafe conditions to express their views and help the advancement of this backward political culture. That is why peace processes, mediations, or roundtable talks have failed a lot of times. [6] Until the inability to reach consensus is not considered a shame, and until round talks, debates, and democratic elections are not recognized the only viable ways of solving differences, the region’s problem will keep deteriorating.

The Horn of Africa is a textbook example to show how backward a political culture could be and how deep down it takes the region. That backwardness not only creates a gridlock to form a democratic political system, but also could be the main factor in causing wars and gross human right abuses.

Religious Intolerance and Violent Extremism

Even though it could be said that in Kenya, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Muslims and Christians have learned to coexist, work together in local communities for emergency, assistance and development aid programs, and fight against injustice regimes, that could not be said about Sudan and Somalia. There is no religious war in the region. However, religious intolerance caused hundreds of deaths, forced conversions, destruction of churches and mosques, denial of building permits, and confiscation of lots designated for religious sites. While some of the governments of the region have done their best to maintain harmony, others played a destructive role in playing the religious card.[7] Such destructive move has caused death, discrimination, displacement, burning of religious institutions, and uprooting.

Armed Conflicts

The Horn is a multi-lingual and multicultural region. As mentioned above, the undeveloped political culture, doubled with undemocratic government’s measures, has been a barrier for any peaceful settlement of political differences. Countries and rebel groups have seen war as the only viable solution to settle differences and problems. [8]

It could also be argued that rebel groups, in some instances, have had no alternatives other than raising arms to fight against the ruling governments. But, again, war is wrong; the result is a huge humanitarian crisis. The Ethiopia-Somali and Ethio-Eritrea wars as well as the Ethiopian and Sudanese civil wars caused the death, imprisonment, abuse, torture, displacement, and uprooting of hundredth of thousands. [9] Given the current situation, it is easy to presume that Africa either does not understand self-determination or misunderstood it.

The Army

Africa used to be called “the Continent of Coup de e tat”. [10] Military takeover in the region is caused by a lack of institutionalized control mechanisms, the inability of civil governments to fight corruption, to solve the social and economic problems, civil wars, injustice, and poverty. [11] Military Juntas — because of their ethnic diversity and their roots in low- and middle-class societies– were expected to bring radical changes, ease the life of the citizens, and solve the ethnic and political problems. Therefore, in the beginning, the poor, the progressive elite, and small merchants supported them morally and politically in the hope that they would change their life conditions and hasten the development of the economy.[12]

Discontent, however, soon began to spread because the Military Juntas– encouraged by the absence of democratic procedures and checks and balances– became corrupt and used public funds for private gain. They also legalized themselves by manipulated “elections”, and forcefully abolished other independent political and interest groups, and were unable to solve civil and ethnic wars that had been going on for years. In the end, these military rulers became the worst human rights abusers themselves causing the death, detention, and uprooting of millions.

The Cold War

The Horn has been a playground for the big powers. The former USSR, Western Europe, and the US scrambled to control this strategic region by supporting a government or its foes. Harry Truman said, “Whenever and where ever anti-Communist governments are threatened by indigenous insurgents, foreign invasion, or even diplomatic pressure (…) the US will supply political and, most of all, military aid.”[13] These words of Harry Truman characterized the US foreign policy. On the other side, Brezhnev learned from Khrushchev’s mistakes. He realized that instruments of influence– military and economic aid– were insufficient; therefore, should be replaced by an instrument of control: contingents of Soviet troop and military specialists[14]. Accordingly, the former USSR provided economic, political, and military support to Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. The two superpowers justified their interventions by stating: “I am able to intervene not only because I have a historical task but because you also are intervening, you are threatening the world order which I represent and which I know to be the true one”. [15]

These confrontations created a good condition for multiple military coup de’etat. The West or the East was not interested in the rule of law, democracy, respect for human rights, but only in the government’s ideological attitudes. The West or the East was not interested in the rule of law, democracy, respect for human rights, but only in the government’s ideological attitudes. In Reagan’s times the message was clear to dictators and would-be dictators: “if you claim to be anti- Communist, his administration was not going to give you any trouble”. [16] This kind of economic and political support gave the rogue regimes of the Horn a license to commit flagrant human rights violations with impunity. But even though communism had collapsed and the Cold War had ended, the players are still in business; and their policies remain unchanged. [17] However, the post-cold war-world- order has changed into a multipolar system. New players, like China, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have entered into the “club”; they have operated in full gear to make the region the object of their confrontation.

Lack of Democracy and Rule of Law

Democracy is an honor system. Human rights and Democracy are interrelated. Classical democracies enshrine rule of law, peaceful transfer of power, the existence of civic organizations, civil movement, democratic governance, fair election and participation of citizens in the decision-making process and respect of human rights. None of the countries of the Horn are democratic. In fact, de facto governments and constitutional one-party rules dominate in the region. In an environment where neither rule of law nor independent judiciary exists, flagrant human rights violation flourishes. That is the case in the region.

Unemployed Youth and radicalization

The number of unemployed youth in the region is one of the highest in Africa.[18] In fact, it “is one of the critical socio-economic and political problems facing Africa in general and the Horn of Africa in particular.” [19] These millions of unemployed, underemployed, unskilled, and undereducated youth have been manipulated and influenced by many religious or political groups to commit human rights abuses. Experts believe that “unemployed youth are not only victims but also active participants of socio-political instability in the region.”[20] The cases in point are genocidal acts, the burning of churches and mosques in Ethiopia, and the terrorist acts committed by Al-Shabab in Somalia. [21]

Conclusion and Recommendation

It is a Groundhog Day in the Horn of Africa. Respect for human rights is clearly important in order to maintain peace and security and achieve social and economic development in the region. Democratic government and rule of law guarantee human rights.

A holistic, inclusive but aggressive approach to counter violent extremism is also needed. In the long journey of the fight for human rights, religion could play a positive or negative role. The strategy should be designed on how to avoid clashes between human rights and religion. The teaching of tolerance in middle and high schools is paramount.

The region is interconnected in many ways. If one ethnic group or country bleeds, the other also would be harmed. Political, ethnic, and religious leaders of the region should understand that they are all in one ship. Therefore, they should strive to solve their differences peacefully, do their best to advance the political culture, and serve the best interest of the people of the region. They should also abandon a zero-sum mindset and always attempt to find a win-win solution to their political differences.

Big Western powers, neighboring nations, and Middle East powerhouses should stop sponsoring wars in the region. They should admit their mistakes of supporting military juntas and undemocratic civil governments that resulted in gross human rights violations. They should condition their political, military, and economic aid on good governance, rule of law, respect of human rights, and conducting a fair and free election. Especially, the US and the West should help not only in the transfer of technology but also in the transfer of the know-how of conflict management, the teaching of tolerance, and negotiation.

Government monopoly in the economy, nationalization, discouragement of private investors, and the lack of good economic policy is going to exacerbate the situation. Policies that focus on improving the education system and on eradicating poverty, inequality, corruption, and discrimination should be initiated and supported. Public work projects should be launched, and low-interest micro-finance programs should be expanded to curb youth unemployment. Respect for human rights is clearly important in order to maintain peace and security and achieve social and economic development in the region. In sum, without development, long-term engagement of human rights and democracy will prove illusory.

[1] See, generally, Eugene Kamenka, Alice Erh-Soon Tay, Eds., St. Martin’s Press, 1978.

[2] Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan, and South Sudan.

[3], visited December 17, 2020.

[4] Bihary Mihaly & Pokol Bela, Politologia, ed: Budapest 1992, pp. 96–97.

[5] Ibid, note 5.

[6]“To establish a political party, to struggle and debate with the ruling government is not our culture”, Mesfin W. Mariam, ኢትዮጵያ ከየት ወዴት (Ethiopia from Where to Where 1993), Addis Ababa, 1993.

[7] See the consequences of Sharia Laws in Somalia and Sudan.

[8] See the current Ethiopian civil war and the border conflict with Sudan, Ethio- Somali Wars, the Sudanese civil war.

[9] See, in General, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International Annual Report from 1974–2020.

[10] See, Árkus István, Forró Kontinens Forró évei, Zrínyi Katonai Könyv- és Lapkiadó, 1984, p. 93. Since achieving independence in 1956, Sudan has had 14 regimes –half of them were civilians and half of the military. Somalia enjoyed 9 years of “elected” civilian government then the military-ruled until it was disintegrated in 1990. Ethiopia was also ruled by a military Junta from 1974–1991. Since 1991 Eritrea has been ruled by a rebel leader-turned president.

[11] Ibid.

[12] It is true that, initially, and in some countries, these military regimes were progressive and did reform the economy, the educational, and social system of their respective countries. For instance, although the land reform in Ethiopia and Somalia violated property rights, they distributed a lot of land to the landless peasants. The “rural development campaign” in Somalia and Ethiopia aiming to provide education, general literacy, and assistance in organizing the land reform, brought a lot of changes in the life of the peasants. The Sudan military coup of 1969- that enjoyed moral and economic support from both the USA and the USSR- made a good start in improving the economic conditions.

[13]Steven Ambrose and Douglas Brinkely, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938, Penguin Books, 1971, page 82.

[14] Seweryn Bialer and Michael Mandelbaum, Ed., Gorbachev’s Russia And American Foreign Policy, Westview Press, 1988.

[15] Hedley Bull, Ed., Intervention in World Politics

195 pp, Clarendon Press/Oxford, 1984

[16] Paraphrased statement of Carl Brown, the former head of the US Information Agency. See also, visited December 14, 2020;, visited December 14, 2020,, visited December 15, 2020.

[17] See, Charles W. Kegley Jr., Eugene R. Wittkopf , The American foreign policy, New York, 1987.

[18] See,, visited December 15, 2020.

[19] See,, visited December 15, 2020.

[20] Ibid.

[21]See,, visited December 16, 2020.


[1] This is an excerpt from a graduation paper. It was originally prepared in November 1995, but I updated some part of it. See,