(New York, July 4, 2007) – The Ethiopian military has forcibly displaced thousands of civilians in the country’s eastern Somali region in recent weeks while escalating its campaign against a separatist insurgency movement, Human Rights Watch said today. Both the government and rebel Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) must protect civilians and ensure their access to humanitarian relief.
“Ethiopian troops are destroying villages and property, confiscating livestock and forcing civilians to relocate,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Whatever the military strategy behind them, these abuses violate the laws of war.”
Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that Ethiopian troops burned or ordered civilians to vacate at least a dozen villages around the towns of Dhagahbur (Degehabur), Qabridahare (Kebre Dehar) and Wardheer. In Wardheer zone, many of the residents of villages located within a 100-kilometer radius of Wardheer town have been forced to relocate to other towns because of attacks on their villages, orders from the Ethiopian military or – less frequently – fighting between the Ethiopian army and the ONLF. Villages around Shilaabo, in Qorahey zone, and around Dhagahbur and Qabridahare towns have also been affected by the Ethiopian army campaign.
Witnesses described Ethiopian troops burning homes and property, including the recent harvest and other food stocks intended for the civilian population, confiscating livestock and, in a few cases, firing upon and killing fleeing civilians. Ethiopian security forces are also responsible for arbitrary detentions in the larger towns, particularly of family members of suspected ONLF members.
In Dhagahbur, at least 20 families who were suspected to have relatives in the ONLF had their camels confiscated. On June 18, in Labiga village, south of Dhagahbur town, Ethiopian forces allegedly killed 21 villagers who resisted when Ethiopian forces tried to take their livestock.
The Ethiopian authorities have also imposed a trade blockade on parts of the region since June, with few goods (including food) permitted into the area, which depends on commercial traffic from neighboring northern Somalia, particularly the coastal towns of Berbera and Bosaso. The attacks on villages and the economic blockade may be part of a strategy to force thousands of people from rural areas to larger towns and deny the ONLF a support base.
ONLF forces have also been responsible for serious abuses. An April attack on Obole, an oil field in northern Somali region, reportedly killed dozens of civilians, including nine Chinese oil workers, and at least 28 civilians working on a farm in nearby Sandhore village.
On May 28, ONLF fighters allegedly targeted two large gatherings in Jigjiga and Dhagahbur with hand grenades. The blasts, and the crowd stampedes that followed, killed 17 people and wounded dozens, including the regional president of Somali region. Most of those who died in these two simultaneous attacks were civilians, including a 17 year-old school boy and a number of women. The ONLF denied responsibility for the attacks, but have a record of targeting civilian officials and clan leaders who refuse to support the insurgency.
“Civilians in Somali region are trapped between the warring parties,” said Takirambudde. “The Ethiopian government appears to be pursuing an illegal strategy of collective punishment of the civilian population, and the ONLF has targeted civilians for attack.”
Human Rights Watch called on both the Ethiopian government and the ONLF to ensure that civilians and civilian property are protected from targeted or indiscriminate attacks and independent international aid agencies have full, unhindered access to civilians in need of humanitarian assistance.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, requires that all warring parties distinguish between military and civilians, protect civilians and their property and take all feasible steps to minimize the harm of military operations on civilians.
Collective punishments – or the punishment of one or more individuals for the acts of others – is also prohibited by international humanitarian law. Hostage taking, which is the holding or use of a person to compel a third party to act or refrain from acting, is also prohibited. Detaining the family member of a combatant to compel the combatant to surrender would thus be unlawful.
Moreover, starvation as a method of warfare is prohibited. It is thus unlawful to destroy or otherwise render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population. Parties to an internal armed conflict must allow humanitarian relief to reach civilian populations suffering undue hardship owing to a lack of foodstuffs and medical supplies essential for their survival.
International humanitarian law also prohibits the forced displacement of the civilian population for reasons connected to the conflict – except when done for the “security of the civilians involved” or for “imperative military reasons.” These prohibitions are applicable to both governments and insurgents.
Ethiopia’s eastern Somali region, known as Region 5 or the Ogaden, is the site of a long-running, low-intensity armed conflict between the Ethiopian government and the ONLF.
The ONLF fought against the Derg, the military dictatorship of Menghistu Haile Mariam, but was not allied to the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the guerrilla movement led by Ethiopia’s current prime minister, Meles Zenawi. In 1992, the ONLF won control of the government of Ethiopia’s newly formed Somali region, becoming the only party not allied to the TPLF to score such a success. However, the ONLF’s open advocacy of secession for Somali region and its frosty relations with the ruling party led to its ouster from government in 1994.
The ONLF then reverted to waging armed attacks against the Ethiopian government, which has continued in the intervening years. For more than a decade, a heavy Ethiopian military presence in the region has been accompanied by widespread reports of human rights abuses committed by both sides. Those reports have generally been difficult to confirm because of the Ethiopian military’s effective closure of the region to independent research and reporting.
The escalating Ethiopian military campaign is likely catalyzed by several recent high-profile ONLF attacks in the region, including the April attack on the Chinese oil site at Obole and the May attacks on Jigjiga and Dhagahbur. In a June 9 news conference, Meles stated that the Ethiopian military was launching a “political and military operation to try to contain the activities of the ONLF.”
The current campaign in Somali region is also linked to Ethiopian military operations in south-central Somalia. One motive for Ethiopia’s ouster of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in December 2006 may have been to cut the links between the ONLF, the ruling Islamic Courts and Eritrea, including arms and logistical supply lines from Eritrea and Somalia to the ONLF in Ethiopia’s eastern region.