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Did West Ignore Rape Charges Related to Ethiopia Land Grab?

July 18, 2013
Christian Science Monitor

USAID officials are accused of ignoring reports of profound human rights abuses by Ethiopia, a strategic ally in the Horn of Africa. They deny it.

NAIROBI, KENYA-The US and British governments are “turning a blind eye” to human rights abuses carried out to force Ethiopian nomads off their land so that it can be leased to foreign farming companies, a new report has claimed.

US aid officials who traveled to Ethiopia's southern Omo Valley in January, 2012 heard direct accounts of rapes, beatings, and intimidation from the alleged victims, according to the report, released by theOakland Institute, a California think tank. 

But more than a year later, in an annual State Department report on Ethiopia, officials wrote instead that “partners did not find evidence” to support claims of state-sanctioned harassment, mistreatment, and arbitrary arrest.

The US team was accompanied by two aid workers fromBritain’s Department for International Development (DFID), which 11 months later circulated a report with the conclusion that the allegations of rape and harm “could not be substantiated.” 

US and British officials were looking into an Ethiopia's resettlement of 260,000 nomadic peoples by putting them in new villages and clearing the land for mostly foreign-owned mega-farms that grow crops including sugar cane and cotton. 

 “During their investigation, the DFID and USAID representatives were given first-hand accounts of human rights abuses but the agencies have subsequently claimed, and still claim, that these accounts have not been substantiated,” the report’s author, Will Hurd, wrote.
“The blind eye turned by USAID and DFID to the human rights violations and forced evictions that accompany the so-called development strategy of Ethiopia is shocking,” he said. 

It was “difficult not to conclude” that the US and Britain had chosen to support Ethiopia’s policy because it was “a strategic” ally in Africa, said Mr. Hurd, who knows local Ethiopian dialects and acted as a translator for the US and UK teams.

A USAID spokesman denied the claims, saying in an email that US officials on the trip, "did not come into contact with any of the victims of the alleged abuses." 

A spokesman for the British aid agency said that, “We condemn all human rights abuses and, where we have evidence, we raise our concerns at the very highest level,” but did not directly address whether its field staff in this case reported up the chain of command and what the response had been.

The spokesman also said: “To suggest that agencies like DFID should never work on the ground with people whose governments have been accused of human rights abuses would be to deal those people a double blow.”

Hurd of the Oakland Institute concluded his report by accusing the US and UK agencies of being, “…willful accomplices and supporters of a development strategy that will have irreversible, devastating impacts of the environment and natural resources and will destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.”

Ethiopia’s so-called “villagization” policy, which is also being pursued in the western Gambella region, will allow children to go to school, sick people to see doctors, and clean water to be provided, Ethiopia says.

The policy has been implemented simultaneously with Ethiopia's effort to lease large chunks of land, and has been colloquially described as a “land grab.” 

Villagization has also been widely criticized for forcing people to move against their will, and of failing to provide social services in the new villages. 

The January 2012 USAID and DFID field mission to South Omo was in part designed to investigate such allegations. 

Hurd has lived in southern Ethiopia for close to a decade and is fluent in local languages.  

His transcripts of audio recordings of meetings between the aid staff and elders from the Mursi and Bodi tribes were included in his report. 

“Many vehicles came driving through our area when we were sitting in the shade,” one Mursi man told the aid workers, according to the transcripts. 

“When they got out of the cars they were carrying their guns in a threatening manner. They went all over the place, and they took the wives of the Bodi, and raped them, raped them, raped them, raped them. 

“Then they came and raped our wives here.”

Forcing people used to living off their cattle into settled villages would slowly starve them, another said. 

“We are waiting for death, we are only waiting for death,” he said. “There is no food anywhere. The only things we have to put in our stomachs come from our cattle.” 

One of the British representatives told the meeting that “beatings and rapes and lack of consultation and proper compensation...are totally unacceptable” and would be raised “very strongly” with officials in Addis Ababa, according to Hurd’s transcripts. 

But the subsequent DFID report was shelved for 11 months. 

“It’s up to the officials involved to swiftly re-examine their role and determine how to better monitor funding if they are indeed not in favor of violence and repression,” said Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute.

An electronic comment by USAID officer Raphael Cook states that, "To date, the observations of the Embassy and the donor community as a result of these visits do not support allegations that the Government of Ethiopia villagization process in South Omo involved coercion or was accompanied by systemic and widespread human rights abuses." 

In the January 2012 trip the email continues, "The information collected by the team was second- and third-hand information and despite best efforts, those interviewed did not have any specifics on the names or whereabouts of the victims."