Albion College’s Own Human Rights Defender: Dr. Milkessa Gemechu

March 22, 2022

By Sheridan Leinbach

Dr. Milkessa Gemechu and Sheridan Leinbach standing together against a blue wall.

Dr. Milkessa Gemechu and Sheridan Leinbach

Dr. Milkessa Gemechu is a visiting assistant professor of Political Science at Albion College. Dr. Gemechu has a BA in Political Science and MA and PhD in Federalism. Born in Oromia, Ethiopia, Dr. Gemechu has had an impactful career in higher education, as an activist/organizer, and a former government official. I chose to interview him due to his unique perspective and continued work as a human rights defender, advocate for democracy, and youth activism and political participation.

Dr. Milkessa Gemechu, was one of the founders of the Qeerroo activist group, also known as the Oromo Youth Movement, which has helped thousands of youth find their voice and organize in defense of their beliefs. Qeerroo is a youth-led movement rooted in the ideas of democracy and peace which they aim to achieve through non-violent actions and peaceful resistance.

Between 2010 and 2018 the movement grew in both size and impact, yet their goal remained the same: to peacefully transition Ethiopia to a democratic state – something they came close to achieving in 2018. In addition to transforming Ethiopian government systems, the youth focus on issues of human rights protection, equal economic opportunity, preventing the seizure of private land, and increasing cultural freedom.

Dr. Gemechu said he learned the power and impact of nonviolent protest from the American Civil Rights Movement. He and other youth activists were inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement for two reasons: the high morality and ethics of the protestors, and their overarching success. And like the Civil Rights movement, over the eight years that Dr. Gemechu participated in and organized non-violent protests for change, they were met with violence from the government – arrested, detained, and in many cases tortured. They persisted and ultimately succeeded. The youth movement, and their nonviolent campaign, remains the most successful political movement in Ethiopia. In 2018, because of the direct activism of the Qeerroo Movement, the former dictator peacefully stepped down – the first and only peaceful transition of power Ethiopia has experienced. Although the new President and government of Ethiopia didn’t keep their promise of creating a democratic Ethiopia after they took power, Dr. Gemechu still believes in the power of youth activism.

Dr. Gemechu originally became interested in politics because he saw the suffering of his family and his people. He saw political organizing as the most direct and impactful mechanism for change when voting wasn’t an option. He believes that as a citizen and especially if you are in a position of power, you cannot be silent while others suffer. Dr. Gemechu says that everyone should have the confidence to speak out regarding their values and beliefs, without fear of government retaliation or harm. But more in depth, Dr. Gemechu believes in the importance of youth activism because youth are the future of the nation. Because they are less saturated in the ‘way things are,’ youth are more open to new ideas and systems.

As one of the few nations that was never under colonial rule, Ethiopia is one of only four African Nations that are founding members of the UN, and one of only three original African nations to sign the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Yet like many governments, Ethiopia has continuously violated the UDHR, especially under the current regime. Ethiopia is currently two years deep into a civil war that has bitterly divided the nation and is characterized by extreme acts of violence. Dr. Gemechu outlined arbitrary detention, torture, widespread political killings, attempted genocide and erasing of culture, sexual violence and rape, no freedom of speech or expression, gender inequality, and unequal access to education. All of these are blatant human rights violations. In addition, the war has violated international humanitarian law – which are laws that protect civilians and seek to limit the effect of armed conflict.

Although no longer physically in Ethiopia, Dr. Gemechu continues to advocate for and fight on behalf of the Ethiopian people – their rights, security, and future. He has called on the United States and the international community to use multiple tools, including sanctions, to influence the Ethiopian government. Ethiopia is completely dependent on foreign aid. While he discussed the important role increased sanctions or making aid conditional could play on influencing the government, he also warned of the negative impact these sanctions would have on already disenfranchised groups. Like most things in modern American politics, US Senators are divided on the human rights situation in Ethiopia and the United States role in that conflict. Dr. Gemechu argues that they must become unified.

Dr. Gemechu also discussed the immense impact that the US and international media could have on the ongoing crisis because of the lack of freedom of press within Ethiopia. Yet, media outlets must be on the same page and sharing the same message of change and support. He praised the US government and media for speaking out and beginning to act against the human rights violations in Ethiopia, but argued we need to be louder.

Although Dr. Milkessa Gemechu has sought sanctuary in the United States and is no longer actively organizing on the ground, he remains a human rights defender. The United Nations defines a human rights defender as anyone, who individually or with others, acts to promote or protect human rights in a peaceful manner. Dr. Gemechu has spent years inspiring and organizing others to speak out against human rights violation and to promote democracy at great personal risk and cost, including imprisonment and physical torture. Today he continues to publish articles critiquing the Ethiopian government, promoting inclusive dialogue, and encouraging youth to become active in politics. Dr. Gemechu encourages us all to speak out about the things we feel passionate about.

Sheridan Leinbach is a political science and history major with a concentration in public policy and service from the Ford Institute for Public Service. Active in numerous campus organizations, Sheridan is passionate about promoting democracy and rights. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of Albion College.