By Jeff Furman
In recent years, investigations and reports carried out by independent organizations have described the steadily worsening human rights picture in Ethiopia. A 2007 report from the UN committee that monitors the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) was “alarmed” to find that security forces have been “systematically targeting” certain ethnic groups. It cited evidence of “summary executions, rape of women and girls, arbitrary detention, torture, humiliations, and destruction of property and crops of members of those communities.”
Human Rights Watch’s 2005 report, “Targeting the Anuak: Human Rights Violations and Crimes against Humanity in Ethiopia’s Gambella Region,” outlines numerous human rights violations against the Anuak, particularly in 2003 when Ethiopian security forces were responsible for the deaths of 424 Anuak in Gambella. Many more were imprisoned, tortured, beaten, and 8,000 to 10,000 fled to neighboring Sudan. These incidents are part of a lengthy and ongoing history of persecution against the Anuak that stems, in part, from the strategic location of the Anuak’s traditional lands.
Since the 2005 elections in Ethiopia, open dissent towards the government and its policies is increasingly not tolerated. In November 2010, the UN’s Committee Against Torture expressed serious concerns about “numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations concerning the routine use of torture by the police, prison officers and other members of the security forces, as well as the military, in particular against political dissidents and opposition party members, students, alleged terrorist suspects and alleged supporters of insurgent groups…” There are many reports of harassment, thousands of detentions and imprisonment of those who oppose the government.
Much of this repression goes unchecked due to the Ethiopian government’s 2008 Charities and Societies Proclamation (Proclamation 621/2009), which criminalizes independent human rights work by barring foreign NGOs that work on human rights issues as well as domestic human rights groups that receive more than 10% of their funds from foreign sources. It also prohibits NGOs from providing legal aid and other assistance or rehabilitation to victims of torture and abuse.
It restricts participation in activities that promote the advancement of human and democratic rights, such as the promotion of equality of gender, religion and nations, nationalities and peoples; the promotion of the rights of disabled and children’s rights; and the promotion of conflict resolution or reconciliation. Domestic NGOs who are in non-compliance with the proclamation have been suspended, including the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association.
The combination of the deteriorating human rights situation, the targeting of indigenous groups, alleged war crimes, the lack of tolerance on dissent, the absence of a free media, restrictions on NGOs, and the increasing concentration of power has created a precarious context for leasing large tracts of land to foreign and domestic investors.
The new January 2012 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report about Gambella confirms what the Oakland Institute (OI) and its partner organization, Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), uncovered in several recent reports on Ethiopia, where indigenous people and local communities are being coerced and forcibly moved from their lands to make room for large-scale agricultural plantations. The report criticizes the Ethiopian government policy of forced villagization–the resettling of indigenous people from land that is being leased for commercial agriculture. Many of the estimated 70,000 people being relocated are Anuak pastoralists.
The government’s response has been a complete denial of these accusations, and it asserts that relocations took place after consulting with and receiving the consent of local people. It appears obvious that the violent repression of ethnic minorities and political opposition to the government has silenced dissent. It is hard to foresee any change in the short term unless there is outside pressure to protect human rights, especially for minorities and indigenous groups.
At the same time, Ethiopia is a key ally of Western countries, especially the US, which considers it an “important regional security partner” and a key ally in the global war on terror. According to Wikileaks cables, the US pressured Ethiopia’s president Meles Zenawi to invade Somalia in 2006. This is consistent with the fact that the US has been providing military aid and training to Ethiopian troops for a number of years. Ethiopia is also one of the largest recipients of US aid (over $1 billion a year since 2007) and has been also among the top recipients of US food aid in the past two decades.
The US government has chosen to turn a blind eye to human rights violations in Ethiopia, including those accompanying land grabs, which turn communal land into large-scale plantations. US support to the Ethiopian regime allows the massive destruction of livelihoods and will ultimately bring hunger to millions of Ethiopians, exacerbating the dire food security conditions that the country already faces.
We have a choice: do we simply send more US food aid when hunger again rears its head or do we take responsibility and stand up for the rights of the impacted communities?
Jeff Furman is a board member of the Oakland Institute. He is currently the Chair of the Ben & Jerry’s corporate board and a trustee of the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation. He is also on the steering committee of the Funders Network on Transforming the Global Economy. Mr. Furman resides in Ithaca, New York with his family. Locally, he is the president of Social Ventures, a 501(c)3 organization as well as the founder of a community dispute resolution center and a community micro-finance program. He has also served on the local school board, working to eliminate socio-economic status as a predictor of student success, and is an advisor to the Dorothy Cotton Institute.