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Human Rights Watch World Report 1998


Human Rights Developments

The government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE), established in August 1995 after elections boycotted by opposition groups, continued to build the federal state structures provided for by the 1994 constitution. These centered on ethnically-based regions having legislative, executive, and judicial powers within their geographical areas. The governing Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and its founding and core constituent, the Tigrean People's Liberation Front (TPLF), continued to exert strict control over this process.

Ignoring constitutional rights, the government of Prime Minster Meles Zenawi did not tolerate pluralist party politics, cracked down on critical media reporting, and aggressively sought to coopt labor and professional associations, and other civil society structures. It actively promoted the policy of ethnic federalism, while successfully dominating the emerging ethnically-based political system by favoring regional parties affiliated to the EPRDF and clamping down on opposition groups in the conduct of regional and national elections from 1992 to 1995.

The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), broke with the transitional government in 1992 and 1994 respectively and later launched armed insurgencies against the government. Recently formed radical Islamist groups, including the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia, and Al Ithad Al-Islami (Islamic Unity), which operated in the Somali Region, fought sporadically with the government.

The government continued to arbitrarily detain hundreds of civilians in remote regions where separatist dissident groups operated. After raids on three border towns in Somalia in August 1996 and December 1996/January 1997, the government claimed it had destroyed Al Ithad Al-Islami's bases. The fundamentalist group continued, however, to claim responsibility for a campaign of bombings of hotels and restaurants, among other civilian targets, in the capital and other cities. The government arrested dozens of ethnic Somalis on suspicion of membership in Al Ithad. In early November, the government accused prominent members of the Oromo community of involvement in bombings in the capital and elsewhere and of OLF membership. As of this writing, at least fifteen remained in detention without charge in the police Central Investigation Bureau. Those detained for their suspected sympathy for rebel groups were usually held in unofficial detention centers, such as the premises of peasant associations, or army camps. Torture and ill-treatment, at the hands of members of rural militias attached to the governing coalition and other security forces, were common. Political killings by state agents were also reported, mostly in areas remote from the capital. The absence of effective judicial oversight and the restriction of the work of most rights monitoring groups to the capital has meant most of those suffering abuse have had no recourse to legal remedy or to public denunciation.

The government kept the officials of regional parties and local governments on a short leash, through a system of quarterly assessments by subordinates, known as Gimgamas, whereby soldiers evaluated their commanders in a process the TPLF believed to have improved the military performance of the Front. Following a series of appraisals in the ranks of the Oromo People's Democratic Organization (OPDO), Kuma Demeska, the chief administrator of Oromiya Region,declared in April that the OPDO had purged its ranks of 250 executive district officials and detained eighty others. In mid-August, the regional council of Gambella Region "endorsed" a proposal, presumably by the regional party, to detain the top four officials in the deposed state's government. The government often accused the purged officials of corruption or of manifesting "narrow nationalism," a reference to their suspected sympathy for dissident groups.

The government's attempts to silence the boisterous Addis Ababa private press continued, but detentions were shorter than in the past. Six journalists were serving prison sentences handed down under the press law for articles they had published. Fourteen other journalists faced similar charges. High levels of bail were set relative to journalists' incomes, an economic punishment that was effective in inducing the media to exercise self-censorship rather than face further arrests.

The government also sought to extend the application of the press law to international correspondents resident in or visiting the country, whose coverage had largely escaped censorship in the past. The Ministry of Information sent guidelines to foreign correspondents in early June, requiring resident correspondents to obtain annually renewable work permits and to respect the "laws of the country, its culture, and its traditions." In late June, Alice Martin, correspondent of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), was forced to leave Ethiopia after the immigration authorities refused to renew her residency permit three days after she assumed the presidency of the association of foreign correspondents.

Activists loyal to the government succeeded in April 1997 in taking control of the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU). What the new leaders termed "normalization" followed a protracted confrontation with its elected leadership that started in October 1994. At the time, CETU's chairman publicly criticized the negative impact of the government's structural adjustment program on public sector workers, the majority of unionized workers in the country. Destabilizing tactics were used against two of nine federations which remained loyal to the previous leadership. The Federation of Commerce, Technical, and Printing Industries, a group of EPRDF loyalists called in the police on November 4, 1996 to support its claim to lead the federation and to eject the previous team from the union's premises. The last federation to remain loyal to the previously-elected CETU leadership was the Banking and Insurance Trade Unions' Federation. Its largest and most influential union, that of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, became the target of pressure such as the freezing of its bank account in April 1997 and the disruption of its meetings. These measures appeared to have ended when its leadership agreed to join the new CETU after its "normalization," and did so in August.

In early May, police shot and killed Assefa Maru, the acting president of Ethiopian's Teachers' Association (ETA), which continued to oppose ethnic federalism and its implications in the field of education. The police statement claimed that the union official, who was also an executive committee member of the independent Ethiopian Human Rights Council, resisted when police caught him "making preparations to destroy economic establishments, and assassinate individuals holding public office" with other accomplices. Human Rights Watch interviews with eyewitnesses and relatives of the accused who are now in custody, as well as photographic evidence, indicated that Assefa Maru was shot in the street on the way to his office. According to the testimonies, at least four police teams took part in the assassination-style killing.

Fearing for his safety, the general secretary of the ETA went into voluntary exile after this incident. The ETA's president, Taye Wolde Semayat, started his second year in prison in May, pending the conclusion of his trial on charges of leading an anti-government armed group. The remaining four members of ETA's executive committee also experienced government harassment. Abate Angore, who headed the members' affairs department, was arrested in March 1996 and spent two months in detention for protesting a police raid on ETA premises. On September 21, 1996, he was again arbitrarily detained in the Southern Region when regional authorities found ETA literature with him. He was released in mid-March 1997. ETA reports that as of mid-year at least seventy teachers were held in Arbe Minch because regional authorities suspected them of loyalty to the ETA.

Despite legal provisions requiring only that authorities be notified prior to political meetings and demonstrations, the government restricted freedom of assembly by a de facto permit system, routinely dispersing "illegal" events. In order to obtain an early release, demonstrators detained during protests in Addis Ababa in March and May had to submit written petitions admitting illegal actions and promising not to participate in demonstrations in the future.

The trial of the seventy-two top-ranking officials of the Derg is still pending. It opened in December 1994 with forty-seven defendants before the court and the rest tried in absentia. In February, the special prosecutor stated that his office had brought charges, mainly for the crime of genocide, against a total of 5,198 persons, 2,246 of whom had been in detention by that time for up to five years, while the remaining 2,952 were charged in absentia. In March, three new trials of Derg-era defendants opened before the Federal High Court in Addis Ababa. The new trials immediately ran into delays similar to the ones that marked the first Derg trial. On the other hand, defendants who were to stand trial before regional high courts were still waiting for their trials to start as of this writing. A serious crisis in the Ethiopianjudiciary had left federal courts with a backlog of some 70,000 "ordinary cases."

The judiciary remains in deep crisis. The government purged dozens of qualified judges, mainly on political grounds, following the 1991 political change. In addition, the restructuring of the judiciary into federal and regional court systems led to further delays, which were aggravated by the lack of resources and trained personnel. The credibility of the new police force, which the government said would be established under civilian control and made accountable before the law, suffered a serious setback as a result of the reported role of the police in the killing in May 1997 of Assefa Maru. Efforts to establish a human rights commission and ombudsman under the auspices of the Council of Peoples' Representatives have yet to produce tangible results.

The Right to Monitor

The government continued to deny the human rights monitoring Ethiopian Human Rights Council legal status, while refusing to respond to its reports and petitions on behalf of individual victims of alleged abuses, claiming that it was a "political" organization. The organization's bank account was frozen in 1995, although its work from its Addis Ababa office has been tolerated. In December 1996, a group of activists founded a Human Rights League, which, by early November 1997, was also denied status as a legal entity: six board members of the league were among the Oromo leaders detained in November. Two of them, the elederly Hussein Abdi and Beyene Belissa, were reportedly ill-treated in police custody. The Ogaden Human Rights Committee, established in 1995, continued to operate clandestinely following the closure of its office, in Gode, Somali Region, after a night raid in June 1996. It published its reports outside the country. The Oromo Ex-Prisoners For Human Rights group was also forced into hiding but continued to monitor the human rights situation in Oromiya regional state and to publish its reports outside the country.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that since the beginning of the year its delegates have been able to conduct visits to an increasing number of detention centers and prisons, to assess detention conditions, and to extend limited assistance to detainees. The ICRC also publicly reported that representations it made to authorities on detention conditions had in various cases led to improvements. For 1996, the ICRC reported that it had visited 6,117 persons held in 129 places of detention in connection with the change of regime in 1991, or for reasons linked to national security, and registered 3,537 new detainees. Human Rights Watch visited Ethiopia in July and August 1997 and met with officials and human rights workers.

The Role of the International Community

The European Union and the World Bank Consultative Group

In December 1996 Ethiopia hosted the meeting of its World Bank-sponsored Consultative Group, the first such meeting held in Africa. Fifteen bilateral and twelve multilateral donors participated, together with a government team headed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Donor delegates applauded Ethiopia's achievements in macroeconomic and structural adjustment programs and urged the government to improve its partnership with civil society through increased dialogue and consultations with groups affected by the economic policies. At the end of the meeting, they pledged over US$2.5 billion in new commitments for the fiscal years 1996/97 through 1998/99.

Reflecting the prevailing inclinations in donor circles, the European commissioner for development and external relations with African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries, Professor Joao de Deus Pinheiro, indicated on February 4, 1997, that the E.U. had increased its grants to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda by between 10 and 45 percent. Asked whether E.U. aid was tied to human rights improvements, Pinheiro said one had to be pragmatic in making funding decisions: "You cannot isolate human rights from the basic rights of the citizen to food, shelter, opportunities . . . all these things are important in assessing the progress of a country." According to the ambassador of a major bilateral donor country, high-ranking Ethiopian officials often articulated similar arguments when foreign diplomats raised specific human rights concerns and called for government investigations of reported abuses.

On February 25, 1997, delegations from the World Bank and the European Commission, met to discuss issues concerning a collaborative effort in Africa. The European Commission and World Bank teams agreed to concentrate their efforts on poverty alleviation and private sector development in three countries: Mozambique, Ethiopia, and the Ivory Coast. The E.U.'s development commissioner stressed that growth, the development of human resources, and the reduction of poverty must go hand in hand with respect for human rights, democratic principles, and the rule of law. Despite this, the E.U. and the donor community at large had yet to bring meaningful pressure to encourage Ethiopia to comply with human rights and other good governance benchmarks.

September 18, 1997, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning human rights violations byEthiopian security forces, seeking the release of all prisoners of conscience and respect for freedom of the press. The killing of Assefa Maru reportedly jolted the government of the United Kingdom into freezing the renewal of an aid package earmarked for the modernization and training of the police force. When the U.K. later offered a revised version of the agreement, incorporating human rights values in the training and reference to judicial oversight, the Ethiopian side reportedly rejected the training. Diplomatic tensions developed between the two countries when the U.K. pressed in vain for the government to open an independent investigation of the incident. The E.U. and other donors supported preparations sponsored by the Council of Peoples' Representatives to convene an international conference in December 1997 for consultations on the creation of a human rights commission and the office of a human rights ombudsman.

United States

Ethiopia ranked second among recipients of U.S. bilateral economic assistance in Africa in Fiscal Year 1997, with approximately $104.6 million in U.S. aid. Private U.S. trade and investment activities also grew significantly, with some 120 U.S. investors starting operations in the country. Assistance reflected the increasing reliance of the U.S. on Ethiopia as the linchpin of its strategy for the containment of the spread of militant political Islam in the region and the stabilization of Somalia.

The U.S. renewed bilateral military assistance to Ethiopia after the fall of the Derg, providing training in demining, basic soldiering skills, and in the area of military justice. In November 1996, the U.S. announced that it was supplying Ethiopia, Uganda, and Eritrea with military hardware totaling $20 million in a program intended to "contain" Sudan. In late September 1997, a U.S. official stated that the government was going to increase the levels of its military aid to these "front line states," while engaging the government of Sudan in an aggressive dialogue meant to press it into abandoning its support of Islamist groups in the region. Ethiopia was also among the first five countries chosen for U.S. training for peacekeeping within the U.S. initiative known as the African Crisis Response Initiative.

Officials of the Clinton administration rarely used these close economic and strategic ties to press Ethiopia for concrete human rights improvements. The U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia frequently voiced supportive statements on its positive achievements, while remaining largely silent on rights abuses; in contrast, the Department of State's annual country reports on Ethiopia provided fairly accurate descriptions of the state of human rights there. The statement by the then Secretary of State Warren Christopher during his October 1996 visit, in which he called on the Ethiopian government to respect the freedom of the private press and abide by other human rights standards, was a rare and welcome exception to this pattern.

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