By Molly Judge

During a recent trip to Ethiopia, I saw, in person, the implications of free legal aid provision for the upholding of human rights.  This is an example of the vital role of civil society organisations, such as those we are working with as part of the Civil Society Innovation Fund (CSIF). 

A first look at Ethiopia 

I am very grateful to have been able to visit Addis Ababa as part of my work on CSIF. Funded by Agence Française de Développement (AFD), and launching in July 2022, the project’s objective is to strengthen civil society in Ethiopia through the support of civil society organisations (CSOs). INTRAC is working in partnership with local Ethiopian organisation AGAR Development Partners Consulting and, together, we have been contracted by AFD to provide technical support in project management, coordination, and capacity strengthening of CSIF partners. It was my first time in Ethiopia, and indeed Africa, and it exceeded all my expectations. We got to know our colleagues at AGAR in person and we ate injera with them every day for lunch; we spoke to the CSOs involved in CSIF, who kindly gave up their time for us; we visited a jazz bar and I even saw an eagle in the countryside near Hawassa

I came away feeling many things – not least a renewed love for Ethiopian jazz and a personal commitment to find injera in the UK. What struck me especially, though, and what I could appreciate more fully in person, was how impactful CSIF has been. It has been particularly effective within the space of legal rights, which we saw on a visit to a police station in Hawassa. 

The significant impact of legal aid provision 

Access to justice and legal support is a significant and long-standing challenge in Ethiopia. This is especially true for people living in poverty or with disabilities, those under the age of 18, and those living on the streets or in remote, rural areas. Enshrined in Ethiopian law is the right to appear before a court within 48 hours of being arrested and to receive legal representation. However, these rights are frequently not exercised.   

As a result of insufficient access to legal support, many detainees are not granted bail and are detained for far longer than they legally should be. I was informed that, in some cases, people have been arrested for minor offences, such as robbery, and detained at the pre-trial stage for a longer period than the sentence they were later given. This not only causes overcrowding in cells but constitutes a violation of rights.   

To help address this issue, CSIF has supported a consortium of three CSOs – Lawyers for Human Rights, Advocates Ethiopia and Mizan Young Lawyers Center. They are working to transform access to justice for detainees by establishing free legal aid centres in and around police stations in Hawassa, Adama, and Addis Ababa. Specifically, these centres focus on providing pre-trial support to secure detainees’ bail rights in criminal cases. They are the first of their kind and have the potential to benefit over 2,000 detainees.  

So far, the centres have provided free legal aid services to around 1,000 detainees and lawyers have also been able to provide legal support to some of the families of detainees.  As a result, overcrowding in police stations has significantly reduced. For example, there were over 100 detainees held in one police station in Hawassa, which was one of the most overcrowded stations, and this has reduced to around 30. This has been a highly successful component of CSIF. 

Civil society and human rights 

The upholding of human rights is imperative in every context, and it only grows more important in a country with increasing conflict and political polarisation. My visit to Ethiopia underscored how the continued upholding of human rights is dependent on a strong civil society sector. CSOs have a key role to play in holding key actors to account, and in defending human rights. The example of legal aid is just one reason why programmes like CSIF are so important.