July 19, 2012

The cancellation of a scheduled press conference this week, to discuss the health of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi – currently in Belgium for treatment – started rumors flying. Belgians might be interested to know why Ethiopians are watching events in Brussels so keenly.

Claiming to follow the Chinese model of development – economic growth first, rights later – is a tempting fig-leaf for despots around the world eager to justify their suppression of dissent at home. Ethiopia has praised the Chinese approach while insisting that it conforms to human rights principles in its own constitution and respects the rule of law. Donors, keen to support Ethiopia’s growth and attempts at reducing poverty, have been willing to tolerate its rights abuses in exchange for security partnerships and healthy statistics showing progress on the Millennium Development Goals

Meanwhile, the Meles government has allowed serious human rights abuses committed by security forces – including war crimes and crimes against humanity – to go unpunished. It has used a raft of repressive legislation to jail critical voices in the media and civil society, shut down or paralyze independent human rights activity, and send a chilling message to Ethiopian citizens that any step out of line will meet with harsh consequences.

Last week the trial of 24 journalists, opposition leaders and others charged with terrorism – related offences – which had been marred by due process violations, lack of access to counsel and allegations of torture by defendants – ended in life sentences and one of 18 years for the renowned writer Eskinder Nega. On the same day, ongoing mass protests by Muslims at state attempts to control mosques were shut down by police with dozens arrested.

In December 2011 Ethiopia sentenced two Swedish journalists to eleven years in jail for the same offence. The pair was attempting to report on the closed Ogaden region where rights abuses against the indigenous Somali population are rampant.

You might think that such behavior would make Meles and his government a pariah. But not at all: Ethiopia receives more EU and US aid than any other African country.

The European Union’s current country strategy on Ethiopia states: “The promotion of sustainable security, the rule of law and inclusive, accountable governance ultimately depend on a conducive political climate.”  The climate in Ethiopia is now one where democracy is dead and dissent carries the highest penalty. Moreover, the price of Ethiopia’s rush towards economic growth at any cost is increasingly being paid in the wellbeing and livelihoods of the very citizens the government claims to represent.

In Gambella the ‘villagization’ program is in its second year. The government has already removed thousands of indigenous people from their homes against their will and resettled them in new areas which are often unfertile and lack schools and clinics.

And now in Southern Ethiopia an ambitious new sugar project makes no pretense of consulting local indigenous communities before removing them from their land and destroying their way of life. A new Human Rights Watch report describes how 245,000 hectares of state-run sugar plantations are being developed without the Environmental and Social Impact Assessments that are required by Ethiopian law. Instead, the government is clearing the land, telling residents that it’s time to leave, and constructing hundreds of kilometers of irrigation canals and sugar plantations, with plans for six sugar processing factories.

The place where this is happening is the Lower Omo valley in southern Ethiopia, a UNESCO world heritage zone. The Mursi, Bodi, Suri, Hamer, and other groups make the area among the most culturally distinctive and biologically diverse valleys in the world. The 200,000 people who live along the banks of the Omo River rely on the river to plant crops and graze their cattle, and their livelihoods, way of life and identity are under threat.

Under international law, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the African Charter, not to mention the Ethiopian constitution, indigenous communities cannot be displaced from their ancestral land without their free prior and informed consent, and even then, only as a last resort and with appropriate compensation.

The European Union is one of several donors that provide budget support to Ethiopia’s district governments under the Protection of Basic Services program, including those where people are being displaced in South Omo and Gambella. It is likely that the EU and others are paying the salaries of the district officials overseeing the plans.

For now, all Ethiopian eyes are on Brussels. But many in Ethiopia wish that Brussels were paying more attention to what Meles Zenawi is up to back home.

Ben Rawlence is a senior researcher for the Africa division at Human Rights Watch.

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