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Human Rights in Ethiopia - An Update

April 19, 2016

Tom Lantos Commission Briefing, April 19, 2016
2255 Rayburn House Office Building

Statement by Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director of the Oakland Institute

Congressman Ellison, members of the Tom Lantos Commission, thank you for this opportunity to provide an update on land-related human rights issues to you.

Ethiopia — one of the poorest countries — is the world’s fifth largest recipient of development aid, and the largest in Africa. United States is the largest bilateral donor to Ethiopia. In 2014 Ethiopia received $665 million in US aid.

Ethiopia has been hailed as a nation in "renaissance," praised for its economic growth and partnership on key US strategic interests. But missing from this narrative is that its so called “development” is based on widespread human rights violations, forced evictions and the displacement of millions of people from their traditional lands, the criminalization of dissent, and the misuse of the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. The land grab in Oromo, which triggered recent protests, is a country-wide phenomenon.

The enormous financial support Ethiopia gets from its international donors has been essential in funding the government's development strategy, as outlined in its 2010 Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). A cornerstone of USAID activity in Ethiopia was support for the GTP, a key element of which was the relocation of 1.5 million people from areas targeted for industrial plantations under the government's "villagization" scheme. These displacements have continued without the free, prior, and informed consent of the impacted populations, and when communities resist, they are forcibly removed by means of violence, rape, imprisonment, intimidation, political coercion, and the denial of humanitarian assistance, including food aid.

These forced resettlements have operated in tandem with Ethiopia's land-investment policies. In early 2008, the Ethiopian government embarked on the process to award millions of hectares (ha) of land to foreign and national agricultural investors at rock-bottom prices. Page 30 of the 2015 Investment Guide to Ethiopia, a document from the Ethiopia Investment Commission, states that there are nearly 11.55 million ha of potential land available for farming.

While the human rights consequences of the EPRDF's political hegemony are indisputable and acknowledged by USAID and the State Department, recognition of the human rights violations resulting from the government's forced removals has largely been missing. On-the-ground research since 2008 by the Oakland Institute, has exposed the systemic and coerced resettlement of indigenous communities and has documented specific accounts of beatings, unlawful arrests, and rape at the hands of the Ethiopian Defense Force, all used to enforce the government's villagization program.

In a 2013 report, the Oakland Institute documented how officials from USAID heard first-hand accounts of forced resettlements and human rights abuses from villagers and still came to the conclusion that the allegations of forced removals were "unsubstantiated." In spite of hearing from people directly impacted by them, USAID officials said that no evidence exists to make the links between their programs and the practices of the Ethiopian government.

The USAID officials ignored their initiative, "Ethiopia: Land Tenure and Administration Program" (ELAP), targeting high-potential investment areas and facilitating land transactions with the stated purpose of facilitating investment. Today Land Administration to Nurture Development (LAND) has replaced ELAP, and is assisting the federal and regional state governments in implementing policies and plans that will facilitate and encourage investment for so called appropriate use of land for improved productivity.

US development assistance also operates through Feed the Future (FTF), which aims to make pastoralist land more productive. While FTF mentions concerns about Ethiopia's "policy of settlement regarding pastoral peoples,” it places primary importance on increasing private sector capacity in pastoral communities as a means to development.

In September 2015, in violation of Appropriations Bills of 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016, the US Treasury voted in favor of World Bank’s new Enhancing Shared Prosperity through Equitable Services (ESPES) program in Ethiopia. ESPES replaces the Bank’s Promoting Basic Services (PBS) program, which for years has been associated with human rights abuses and the forced relocation of indigenous communities and large-scale land grabs. These issues were highlighted in a report by the World Bank’s own independent Inspection Panel in 2015. Rather than addressing the grave concerns raised about the program, the Bank, instead, launched an almost identical initiative under a new name.

Congressional laws exist to ensure that US tax payers’ dollars don’t contribute to social harm. The Commission should ask the Treasury to explain how it could ignore the Congressional mandate and disregard the protection of indigenous groups and forced displacement by voting in favor of the ESPES program.

And in the course of our work, we have seen Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation used as the tool to carry out the government’s development strategy. A recent report authored by lawyers from leading international law firms, provides an in-depth analysis of the Proclamation and shows how it is a tool of repression, designed and used by the Ethiopian Government to silence its critics.

While legitimate anti-terrorism laws exist, Ethiopia's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation criminalizes basic human rights, especially freedoms of speech and assembly. The law defines terrorism in an extremely broad and vague way so as to give the government enormous leeway to punish words and actions that would be perfectly legal in a democracy. It also gives the police and security services unprecedented new powers, and shifts the burden of proof to the accused. Worse still, many of those charged report having been tortured, and the so-called confessions that have been obtained as a result have been used against them at trial. Those who have been charged as terrorists under the law include newspaper editors, indigenous leaders, land rights activists, bloggers, political opposition members, and students. The Anti Terrorism laws are being used by the Ethiopian government not against the terrorists, but to curb human rights of its own citizens.

Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of US development aid. It is imperative to ensure that efforts to reduce hunger, poverty and conflict in the East Africa are not being undermined by undemocratic and increasingly repressive development practices in Ethiopia. Congress put forward important protection in the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Appropriations Bills around our aid being used for forced displacements. It is time to follow-through with those promises, to ensure proper monitoring of the situation on the ground, and where necessary, the redirection of funds.

We recognize the need for development aid, especially during major humanitarian crises like the current drought in Ethiopia. Yet it is counterproductive if donor aid is supporting the destruction of natural resources upon which the poor directly depend, and if it enables projects that lead to human rights abuses. Current US support to the Ethiopian government — financial, political and moral — is in danger of producing exactly the opposite result from what we intend. It is enabling an authoritarian government to ignore the rights and interests of its own citizens, which can only end in violence and instability. The US Congress should undertake a serious examination of our development aid to Ethiopia, to ensure that it is not supporting political repression, and is not being funneled into land grabs that are undermining the poverty-alleviation intent of US taxpayer aid.

The European Union earlier this year passed a strong worded resolution on the human rights situation in Ethiopia. It is time for the United States to speak up for democracy and for human rights in Ethiopia.