The government says Human Rights Watch has got it wrong. Really?
Feb 5th 2009 – The Economist print edition –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 separatists.
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.