By Bridget Wayland
Montreal is half a world away from the rural community of Bure, Ethiopia, where Semahagn Abebe was raised by his grandmother. One of eleven children, he soon moved to the capital city, Addis Ababa, to pursue higher education and launch his career. He earned his Bachelor of Laws from Addis Ababa University in 1996, and started to work as a Public Prosecutor for the Ministry of Justice.
But he quickly became disillusioned with the state of the criminal justice system in Ethopia. “The police do not investigate properly,” says Abebe, an O’Brien Fellow in Residence at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism (CHRLP) at the Faculty of Law for the 2013-14 academic year and McGill’s first visitor from the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR), “and people are convicted despite this lack of evidence. There is torture. In the courtroom, you can see prisoners who have suffered.”
It did not take him long to become leery of the state of academic freedom in the nation’s universities, as well. From 2003 to 2007, he worked as a lecturer at both Addis Ababa University and the Faculty of Law at the Civil Service University, where he taught Criminal Procedure Law, Administrative Law, lnternational Trade Law and Human Rights Law. “It was very interesting, and I enjoyed it,” he recalls.
“However, there were government officials in the programs, and they would confront me whenever I was critical of the government’s human rights record and the lack of freedom in the country.” These officials would then communicate their complaints to the President of the College, who was a political appointee. As a result, he says, “you are pressured to change your message, or to leave.”
According to Abebe, the situation only got worse as time went on. “After the election crisis of 2005, there were demonstrations, many people were killed, and 30,000 people were imprisoned,” he recalls. “Then the government really started to restrict freedom of expression and academic freedom.”
Abebe was in danger. “What saved me,” he says, “was that my College was affiliated with the government, so in a sense, they could keep an eye on me. Still, certain people told me I was being followed, and I began to be afraid for my safety.”
It was during this time that he began to see a way out. A visiting professor from the University of Goettingen was impressed with Abebe’s teaching manuals on international trade law, and helped him get a scholarship for post-graduate studies in Germany.
Abebe left Ethiopia in 2007, and has not been back since.
By 2012, Abebe had completed a Masters of Law (his second) and a PhD at the University of Goettingen – both in German, which had become his third language, after Amharic and English.
Because his work is critical of the human rights system in Ethiopia, going back home was not an option. “It would be very difficult to work there,” he says. “But I did not know how else could I continue my research. That is when I contacted the Scholars at Risk Network.”
Based at New York University, this network of more than 330 institutions around the world, including nine in Canada, is dedicated to promoting academic freedom and defending scholars and universities worldwide. To date, SAR has provided assistance to more than 400 academics who had been facing harassment, censorship, surveillance and intimidation in their home countries, including a risk of arrest on false charges, detention without trial, torture, disappearance and murder.
The network assists academics who cannot leave their home countries by facilitating academic freedom workshops and monitoring conditions across the world, among many other measures, but also acts as a matchmaker between these threatened scholars and safe institutions, such as McGill, which can offer them temporary positions
SAR first placed Abebe at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, located at the Faculty of Law of the National University of Ireland, in Galway. Working with Amnesty International, SAR then arranged for him to visit the University of Geneva as a speaker and guest lecturer. And now, they helped organized his placement at McGill.
“We are very grateful to the Faculty of Law for stepping up during Dr. Abebe’s time of need to offer him an opportunity to continue his academic work in safety,” says Clare Robinson, Director of Protection Services at SAR.
According to Dr. Nandini Ramanujam, McGill’s representative in the SAR Network and the Executive Director of the CHRLP, “Dr. Abebe’s research on governance and human rights in sub-Saharan Africa, with a particular focus on large-scale land acquisition and its impact on human rights, is a great fit with the Centre’s research axis on Economic Justice.”
At McGill, Abebe is free to pursue his own academic work without the fear of reprisals he had experienced prior to fleeing Ethiopia in 2007. But he also contributes greatly to the richness of intellectual life at the Faculty of Law. For instance, he is teaching a post-graduate course on Governance and Development in Sub-Saharan Africa this semester, offering seminars on his areas of expertise, and working on various projects with the other O‘Brien Fellows at the CHRLP.
While in Canada, Abebe is also doing his best to raise public awareness of the real situation in Ethiopia, on behalf of those who cannot speak freely. “I decided to go public because I want to promote human rights, and I am now living in a place where I’m safe, so I wanted to speak. That is what I have to do. The human rights situation in my country is deteriorating day by day. The situation is very serious. So, how can I be quiet about that?
Abebe recently published an Op-ed in the Montreal Gazette, entitled “Saudi Arabia’s Treatment of Ethiopians Has Been Shameful,” in which he portrays the brutality employed in the 2013 deportation of 140,000 Ethiopians from Saudi Arabia, where they had been living as undocumented workers.
He also has two forthcoming books from Ashgate Publishing. The first, The Last Post Cold-War Socialist Federation: Ethnicity, Ideology and Democracy in Ethiopia, is based on his PhD thesis and due out in February. The second, on refugee law, which he is co-writing with another O’Brien Fellow in Residence, Anne-Marie Mooney Cotter, is in its initial stages.
“Before I came to Canada, my perception was that this country is a good host to people of different cultures and backgrounds,” he says. “Now that I have been here four months, I can attest that this is true.”
“Coming here has been a very good opportunity for me. I am thankful to the Centre, and to the Scholars at Risk Network, for helping me with this difficult situation. I admire their efforts to promote human rights and guarantee academic freedom in higher education institutions all over the world.”
“By joining the Scholars at Risk Network in 2010, McGill proudly reiterated its commitment to protecting and nurturing academic freedom, and expressed solidarity with courageous scholars from the global academic community,” says Ramanujam. “Dr. Abebe’s arrival is testimony to our engagement with the worldwide struggle for freedom and dignity.”
Abebe is the first Scholar at Risk to be hosted at McGill, but he certainly won’t be the last. “We are in the process of identifying a new scholar to be hosted at the Faculty of Law in Fall 2014,” says Ramanujam, “and we have plans to host more scholars at different faculties in the coming years.”
This article first ran in the January edition of the Faculty of Law’s Focus online newsletter.