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Humanity Before Ethnicity: Broadening the Scope of Human Rights

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Obang O. Metho

Obang O. Metho

By Krystin Gollihue

When we get involved, we fully expect our service to change us. Not only can the people we meet and serve teach us, but it can soon become clear that our mission or focus should shift, narrow, or broaden. These are the joys of working in the not-for-profit sector, where Obang Metho, Director for International Advocacy of the Anuak Justice Council (AJC), believes that the profit of nonprofit work is that we are changed by how we help others. For him, he began working with the Anuak people of the Gambella region of Ethiopia, and through international advocacy realized that he could affect change across the Ethiopian Diaspora.

Anuak Justice Council Logo_originalThe Anuak people are a small ethnic group living in the Gambella region of Ethiopia. They have less than 100,000 people worldwide and were listed as an endangered people in 1984 after the military regime in Ethiopia began targeting them and dispossessing them of their lands for access to oil and natural resources. The indigenous Anuak have been marginalized by both Ethiopia to the east and Sudan to the west and over the years have fled their ancestral lands, lost their cultural property, and have had their traditional ways slowly chipped away. In 2003, Ethiopian rebel militia groups marched through Gambella and massacred 424 people in a targeted attack. In 2004, AJC was formed in response to the genocide to protect the well-being of the Anuak, to tell their story, to advocate for their rights globally, and to build an institutional voice with the Anuak so that they may be recognized by the international community.

The model for AJC’s success is both to create a narrative of the Anuak where one does not exist and to counter the narratives often reinforced by mainstream media that the conflict is a result of inter-tribal clashes. They have established partnerships with other organizations, including the Human Rights Watch, Genocide Watch, Survivor’s Rights International, the Forum on Indigenous Issues, and more in order to bring to light the issues that the Anuak face. Metho has testified in front of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights and met with representatives from the United States Congress in order to tell the story of the Anuak and advocate for justice. The AJC has had articles featured in national publications like The Guardian, and as a result, many governments have now begun conducting investigations into the 2003 massacre and other human rights abuses made against the Anuak. A different story is now being told.

SMNE LogoBut the Anuak are not the only people experiencing human rights violations in Ethiopia, and so their story is not the only story out there to be told. What Metho and AJC have grown to understand through their justice work is that there is an even larger narrative in Ethiopia that isn’t being communicated because other groups, like the Anuak, do not have an institutional voice that makes them visible. While the Anuak’s “voices are stronger because they have a stronger institution,” there are still ethnic groups across Ethiopia who “don’t have someone who has language and education to help them.” The very act of advocating for the Anuak has revealed that the AJC’s vision and mission must expand to include other groups who do not have the voice that the Anuak have to lift up their humanity to officials and the international community at large. Metho says that a shift has occurred in what AJC and the international justice community must accomplish: “From now on, we are not only speaking for the Anuak, we are speaking for the rest of Ethiopia.” Metho has therefore founded the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), an organization like the Anuak Justice Council that seeks to cross ethnic lines and advocate for a freer Ethiopia. SMNE builds awareness, creates strategic alliances, and has developed a Global Campaign to reconcile differences at local, regional, national and international levels.

One of the reasons why this advocacy work is so important is that it builds an institutional voice for the Ethiopian Diaspora, which itself is made up of tiny ethnic groups like the Anuak. Metho says that we live in a society where “institutions count, not individuals.” While the Anuak already have this organizational power as a people internally, they are still seen as insignificant by people in power. As for other groups in Ethiopia, Metho says that “we live in a world where some people have no voice whatsoever, but knowing their story is winning the battle.” The work of the AJC and SMNE is to use the voices of people like Metho who have education, language skills, and resources that other Ethiopians do not to help justify their voices to a larger international community. Metho notes, “The fact that I am talking to you, that this will be written, that someone will read this and see that the Anuak and other Ethiopians are and were a people, that is the first step to acknowledging human rights.”

Metho says that while it may seem simple, human rights are actually quite complicated globally. Questions of human rights abuses are often set aside for economic benefit. To be able to advocate and conduct outreach, the AJC and SMNE not only has to recognize a group of people as human beings, but to convince others that they “are like every other human being on this earth. They have a right to be protected and nurtured and cared for. It is a right that we all have simply by being born. What Ethiopia doesn’t see is the bigger picture – that we all come to this world with no language, no status, no religion, only as human beings and that no one is free until we are all free.”

The thread that runs through all of the work that Metho does is the recognition that there is “humanity before ethnicity,” that what creates these divisions that are cause for human rights violations are the markers that make us different. By beginning with the story the Anuak have told about their experiences with genocide and human rights violations in Gambella, the AJC and SMNE has been able to lift up the stories of all Ethiopians who have no ability to prove their humanity to others. By broadening the scope of their work to include other voiceless Ethiopians, Metho has furthered the vision that all people be taken as human before anything else. Not only is the Anuak’s story being told, but a global narrative of who Ethiopia is as a group of diverse human beings, not faceless individual ethnicities, can be heard and can have justice.


Krystin Gollihue is a current doctoral student in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at NC State University.

Mr. Obang Metho is Executive Director of the SMNE, a non-political and non-violent social justice movement of diverse people that advocates for freedom, justice, good governance and upholding the civil, human and economic rights of the people of Ethiopia, without regard to ethnicity, religion, political affiliation or other differences.

The SMNE believes a more open, transparent and competitive market economy, supported by viable institutions and reasonable protections, which provides equal opportunity, will result in greater prosperity to the people rather than keeping it in the hands of a few political elites. SMNE and the Oakland Institute co-produced the Ethiopian portion of the comprehensive investigative report, Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa, published in June 2011.

Mr. Metho is a human rights activist who has tirelessly advocates for human rights, justice, freedom and environment, enhanced accountability in politics and peace in Africa for over 10 years. He has briefed and met with leaders and officials at United Nations, the European Parliament, the US Department of State, the US Senate, the US House of Representatives, the World Bank and the Council for Foreign Relations, amongst others. Mr. Metho is a courageous defender of fundamental respect for human life and is committed to work for the reconciliation, forgiveness and healing of affected peoples in order to create a positive future.

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