Human Rights under the Ethiopian Constitution: A Descriptive Overview

AuthorAdem Kassie Abebe
PositionLLB (Jimma University); LLM: Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
Adem Kassie Abebe
This article summarizes human rights under the Ethiopian Constitution (mainly
surrounding Chapter 3 of Constitution and related constitutional provisions on
human and democratic rights), and forwards some insights. It, inter alia, covers
various aspects of the application and interpretation of human rights provisions,
limitation and derogation from protected rights, the amendment procedure and
constitutional adjudicatory jurisdiction. The relevance attached to international
and regional human rights instruments and their status in the Ethiopian
hierarchy of laws is noted. Although there are some references to factual
situations, the article primarily considers the constitutional landscape. The
article thus attempts to cover a wider spectrum of issues, and its purpose is not
to discuss each issue in detail, but to forward an overview and offer some
Key words:
Human rights, The Ethiopian Constitution, Ethiopia, constitutional
adjudication, constitutional amendment, constitutional remedies.
Ethiopia had three written constitutions (in 1931, 1955 and 1987) before the
1995 FDRE Constitution. The 1931 Constitution1 does not have significant
relevance for the human rights discourse as it was primarily designed to reaffirm
and fortify the absolute power of Emperor Haile Selassie I.2 The state was
generally not understood to owe duties to its subjects.3 The 1955 Constitution4
LLB (Jimma University); LLM: Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria;
Doctor of Laws Candidate, Researcher and Tutor, Centre for Human Rights, Faculty
of Law, University of Pretoria..
1 Constitution of Ethiopia, (adopted in July 1931). The absence of written constitutions
before 1931 does not however mean that there were no (unwritten) constitutions.
2 For more discussion see, Fasil Nahum (1997), A Constitution for a Nation of Nations:
The Ethiopian Prospect (Red Sea Press) at 21 (See generally Chapter 2).
3 T Regassa (2009) “Making Legal Sense of Human Rights: The Judicial Role in
Protecting Human Rights in Ethiopia”, 3(2) Mizan Law Review 287, at 297; see also
CN Paul & C Clapham (1972), Ethiopian Constitutional Development: A Sourcebook,
Addis Abeba University Press)
42 MIZAN LAW REVIEW Vol. 5 No.1, Spring 2011
was adopted in response to the inadequacy of the 1931 Constitution to
accommodate the more complex legal and political scenario at domestic and
international levels. Although this Constitution recognized a handful of rights,
their relevance was vastly compromised due to the absolute power of the
Emperor, and the absence of an organ empowered to interpret and apply the
Constitution.5 Besides, most of the rights were entangled with claw-back
The military junta (which called itself the Dergue, which literally means
Committee) took power after dethroning Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1974, and
it adopted a Constitution in 1987 after 13 years of constitutional lacuna. The
1987 Constitution7 highly accentuates economic, social and cultural rights due
mainly to the socialist tendency of the regime. It was nonetheless a regime beset
by fear and there was no fertile ground to foster the recognition and exercise of
human rights.8
The current Ethiopian Constitution entered into force on 21 August 1995.9 In
a stark break from its predecessors, the FDRE Constitution establishes an ethnic
based federal state consisting of regional states delineated on the basis of
settlement patterns, language, identity, and consent of the people concerned.10
The Constitution also represents a major breakthrough in terms of human rights.
It was crafted to respond to the underlying causes that triggered the widespread
4 Revised Constitution of the Empire of Ethiopia, Proclamation No. 149 of 1955.
5 See generally G Krzeczunowicz (1984), ‘Hierarchy of laws’ 1(1) Journal of Ethiopian
Law, 11
6 T Regassa, supra note 3 above, at 298.
7 Constitution of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, adopted 22 February
8 In addition to the four Constitutions alluded to, Ethiopia also had the 1991 Transitional
Period Charter of Ethiopia which organized the Transitional Government between 22
July 1991 and 21 August 1995. This Charter recognized ‘freedom, equal rights and
self-determination of all the peoples’ as its governing principles.
9 There is no indication that the Constitution or any of its elements were inspired by
constitutions in other parts of the world. Nonetheless, the human rights provisions of
the Constitution must have been highly influenced by the development internationally.
10 See FDRE Constitution arts 1, 46 and 47. Currently, there are nine regional states and
two city states under federal administration, Addis Abeba and Dire Dawa. Each level
of government, Federal and Regional, has its own legislative, executive and judicial
structures. The judicial structure is composed of first instance, high court and
supreme courts at the federal level and in each regional state.

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