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Human Rights Developments

    The year 1990 witnessed a continuation of systematic, large-scale violations of human rights in Ethiopia. Despite the announcement of political and economic reforms in March, the government made no attempt to check abuses. Any diminution in the extent of abuses merely reflected the government's dwindling control over large areas of the countryside, as well as the massive scale of abuses in previous years. Ethiopian citizens continued to be ruled by a government that regarded life and liberty not as rights but as privileges to be granted at its pleasure.

    The end of 1989 saw a dramatic advance southward by the rebel forces of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition led by the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The rebels thrust to within 100 miles of Addis Ababa. The government responded with the same counterinsurgency tactics that it had used in previous years, including indiscriminate bombing. The authorities also forcibly conscripted tens of thousands of young men and boys, some as young as 13 or 14, in violation of international law and Ethiopian regulations on military service. Conscripts were picked up on the street, in school and at market, given rudimentary training, and sent to the front to do battle with some of the most hardened guerrilla fighters in the world.

    In February, the government suffered a major defeat with the loss of the port town of Massawa to the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), a movement fighting for an independent Eritrea. During the fighting about 200 civilians were killed, many of them while being kept hostage as "human shields" by the retreating government forces. This defeat triggered an intensification of conscription. Reports from rural villages told of large-scale forcible round-ups of young men and boys. There were also immediate reprisals. Massawa was repeatedly bombed by government aircraft, using napalm or phosphorus bombs, high explosives and cluster bombs. The bombers' main targets appeared to be civilian areas of town and places where civilian refugees were encamped outside town. The cluster bombs were particularly lethal when used against civilian targets, since each bomb showered a hail of lethal fragments over a wide area. Over 50 civilians were killed in one such attack, and over 100 in all the bombing raids taken together. In addition, about 25,000 tons of food donated by international humanitarian organizations were burned, and the government prevented a ship carrying relief supplies from docking by threatening to attack it.

    Under pressure from both the US and the USSR (Ethiopia's major arms supplier), the Ethiopian government largely ceased bombing Massawa in June, although isolated attacks occurred in early September and late October. Elsewhere in the country, frequent bombing raids continued, including in Eritrea, Tigray, Wollo, Gondar, Shewa and Wellega. Many civilians have been killed, much property damaged, and on several occasions convoys carrying relief items have been destroyed.

    For the most part, government counteroffensives in 1990 were unsuccessful. Government troops continued to employ the counterinsurgency tactics used in previous years, including regular killing of civilians, forcible displacement of commmunities, and looting and destruction of property. On numerous occasions, soldiers in garrison towns near the front line arbitrarily opened fire on local residents, including women and children. The army was "living off the land," requiring the local population to provide and prepare food. There were also accounts of soldiers forcing local women to serve the garrisons as cooks, cleaners and prostitutes; in some cases, these women were reportedly forced to stay with the troops when they moved elsewhere.

    The site of some of the worst abuses was the Eritrean capital, Asmara, which was completely surrounded by EPLF forces. Government soldiers in Asmara killed many civilians and created famine conditions by requisitioning food, preventing the free importation of food, and preventing people from leaving for EPLF-controlled areas.

    The government also cracked down on internal dissent. In May, twelve army officers were executed after having been found guilty of involvement in a coup attempt a year earlier. The early stages of the trial appeared to adhere to due process requirements, but at the end the presiding judge was abruptly removed, and the executions were carried out in secret immediately after the verdict was announced. When this became known, students at the University of Addis Ababa demonstrated to protest the killings, and were met with a violent response, including the use of live ammunition.

    In March, President Mengistu Haile-Mariam promised an end to communism. However, one-party rule continued, and no provisions were made for a free press, an independent judiciary or a free trade-union movement. Almost all repressive legislation remained in force, including the Special Penal Code, introduced in 1974 and later amended, which prescribes execution and lengthy prison terms for a wide variety of vague and broadly worded offenses, such as committing an act "designed to destroy the unity of the people" or "intentionally...weakening the defensive power of the state." The same punishments apply to attempts to leave the country without official permission, which the Code treats as a form of treason.

    The rebel movements also committed human rights violations, albeit on a much smaller scale. The EPLF blocked a shipment of relief food bound for the port of Massawa, and shelled Asmara indiscriminately, killing civilians near the airport. The TPLF was intolerant of dissent within its own ranks, and detained some members without charge. A joint operation by the Oromo Liberation Front and the EPLF during January and February in western Ethiopia yielded at least one incident in which Amharic-speaking civilians were deliberately killed.

US Policy

    From the time of the restoration of Emperor Haile Selassie after the defeat of the Italians in 1942 to the seizure of power by the Marxist Colonel Mengistu in 1977, Ethiopia was the most important US ally in east Africa. Of particular concern to successive US administrations was use of the Kagnew air base, an important military communications center during the Cold War era, and Haile Selassie's dominance in the Organization for African Unity, which has its headquarters in Addis Ababa. After 1977, relations swung to the opposite pole, with mutual declarations of hostility, the expulsion of the USAID mission and the withdrawal of the US ambassador, as the Ethiopian government aligned itself with the Soviet bloc, receiving several billion dollars worth of military assistance from the USSR. Thereafter, the US resolutely criticized the human rights record of the Ethiopian government. It refused to upgrade diplomatic relations, and gave only humanitarian assistance to the country, the great majority of which was sent through private voluntary organizations.

    This firm posture of disapproval continued through the first half of 1990. In April, during a visit to the United States by Ethiopian representative Rassa Kebede, the Bush administration protested the bombing of Massawa. It also brought pressure to bear on the Mengistu government to allow relief food to pass through government lines to reach rebel-held territory, by apparently conditioning the supply of humanitarian relief to government-held areas on an agreement to allow it to pass to rebel-held areas, and by raising the issue at the Bush-Gorbachev Washington summit in June. In addition, the US opposed Israel's sale of military technology to Ethiopia.

    One of the administration's main concerns was the fate of the Ethiopian Jews, known as Falashas. Most of the Falashas emigrated to Israel in the mid-1980s, but about 15,000 remained in Ethiopia at the end of 1990. Early in the year, they left their homes to go to Addis Ababa, in expectation of transport to Israel. However, the Ethiopian government blocked emigration, in the hope of obtaining more weaponry from Israel. Opposing the notion of bartering human beings for weapons, the US pressed for attention to the humanitarian needs of the Falashas.

    This firm stance in opposition to Ethiopia's human rights abuses began to fade in the last half of 1990, apparently in reaction to President Mengistu's strong support for the US position on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In addition to a series of unprecedented high-level meetings with the Mengistu government -- Secretary of State James Baker met several times with Foreign Minister Tesfaye Dinka -- the United States quietly acquiesced in substantial World Bank loans to Ethiopia. According to the World Bank, some $430 million in loans were under consideration for Ethiopia at the end of 1990. The US Treasury Department told Africa Watch that the World Bank maintains a "core lending" program -- loans actually extended -- of about $100 to $150 million. Although as a formal matter the United States continued to oppose by abstention all loans to Ethiopia unless they meet basic human needs -- at least some of them did not -- the magnitude of the loans under consideration and extended suggested that the Bush administration was not using its vast influence within the World Bank to stop the loans on human rights grounds.

The Work of Africa Watch

    Africa Watch began its systematic research on Ethiopia in April 1990, issuing newsletters that focused on the following issues:

o Violence by the Ethiopian army against the civilian population.

o The violent and arbitrary methods of conscription, and the youth of many conscripts.

o The bombing campaigns against civilian targets since 1988, including eyewitness testimonies of the bombing of Hausien, a market town which was destroyed in June 1988, with the loss of between 1,000 and 1,800 lives.

o The student protest in Addis Ababa in May and its suppression by the security forces.

o The siege of Asmara in the 200 days after the capture of Massawa by the EPLF, addressing violations of the laws of war by both sides to the conflict, including the use of starvation as a weapon of war.

    Africa Watch also wrote to President Mengistu, with a copy to Secretary of State Baker, protesting the situation of the Falasha population in Addis Ababa. Africa Watch published an article in The Nation in October highlighting the plight of the Falashas and other Ethiopian abuses.

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