From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Thu Feb 05 2009 - 16:58:04 EST
Ethiopia - A row over human rights
Feb 5th 2009 | ADDIS ABABA
>From The Economist print edition
The government says Human Rights Watch has got it wrong. Really?
INDEPENDENT voices in Ethiopia are finding it ever harder to be heard.
Suffocated by an irascible government, the country’s newspapers are now the
least informative in east Africa. Journalists deemed critical of the prime
minister, Meles Zenawi, are pilloried. And they are not alone.
Foreign aid people and diplomats say a law pushed through parliament last
month will curtail the activities of local human-rights workers. The new law
means that independent local outfits that get more than 10% of their income
from abroad will be classified as foreign. Once designated as such, they
will not be allowed to engage in anything to do with democracy, justice or
human rights. Real foreigners are already banned from doing so. As few
home-grown charities and non-governmental organisations can stand on their
own feet in a country as poor as Ethiopia, the government will be able to
control domestic dissent more tightly.
The task of raising human-rights issues now increasingly falls to
foreigners. A particularly bitter tussle is under way over allegations of
atrocities by Ethiopian soldiers in the country’s south-eastern Ogaden
region. This area abuts the border with turbulent Somalia and is populated
mainly by ethnic Somalis traditionally hostile to the government in Addis
Ababa, the capital.
Human Rights Watch, a pressure group, accuses Ethiopia of war crimes and
crimes against humanity there. It says that Ethiopian troops burned down
villages and killed, raped and tortured civilians in a counter-insurgency
campaign against the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front after its
fighters had killed 74 Ethiopian and Chinese oil-exploration workers in
2007. Ethiopia’s government was so incensed by the description of
“systematic atrocities” in the Ogaden that it commissioned a report of its
own that dismissed Human Rights Watch’s allegations as hearsay and its
methods as slapdash.
The government report found “no trace” of serious human-rights violations.
People reported to have been killed or tortured were said to have been found
alive and well. Villages marked down as torched were said to be unscathed.
The sole admitted instance of torture was said to have resulted in a
court-martial. According to the Ethiopian report, Human Rights Watch was
one-sided, since it failed to document the guerrillas’ thuggery. Perhaps
unwittingly, said the Ethiopians, it had made itself a propaganda tool of
The Ethiopian investigation did not, however, examine all of Human Rights
Watch’s accusations. Some executions listed by the group go unchallenged or
are blamed unconvincingly on the guerrillas. The report skims over the
Ogaden’s humanitarian emergency, which Médecins Sans Frontières, a
French-based charity, lists as one of the world’s ten worst. The Ethiopian
report flatly denies that the government blockaded separatist strongholds
during a famine, thus starving civilians. The Ethiopians also lambast Human
Rights Watch for not visiting the Ogaden, knowing that it was they who
blocked the visit. They claim that the Ogaden has been open to anyone, yet
most independent journalists have been banned from travelling there freely.
Several aid organisations, including the International Committee of the Red
Cross, have been kicked out. Aid workers there speak only anonymously, for
fear of expulsion.
The government has a general election to win next year. A wave of arrests of
political dissenters, including a prominent opposition leader, Birtukan
Mideksa, suggests the government wants to keep all its opponents in check.
A simple way for it to win confirmation of its claim that Human Rights
Watch’s accusations are false would be to let independent journalists, both
foreign and Ethiopian, visit the Ogaden and see for themselves.
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