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Human Rights Developments

Nineteen ninety-two marked the first full year in power for the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, headed by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (eprdf). The creation of the new government had produced high hopes for the establishment of peace and human rights, but instead the year saw the dawn of a sober reality.

In retrospect, the expectations that an impoverished, fractured, heavily armed country with no democratic tradition would quickly establish an unprecedented peace and democracy were unrealistic. The main partners in the coalition government-the eprdf and the Oromo Liberation Front (olf)-harbored deep mutual distrust. Moreover, the former ruling elite (variously termed "Amhara," "Shewan" and "Centralist") was vigorously opposed to the Transitional Government's radical program of political restructuring, in particular its regionalization plan, which envisaged granting "self-determination" to all "nationalities" (roughly equal to major ethnic groupings).

Nevertheless, there has been significant progress toward respect for human rights in Ethiopia, and the Transitional Government remains more accountable on human rights matters than any other government in Ethiopian history. However, both the government, including its chief force, the eprdf, and its opponents have committed serious abuses.

The central event in Ethiopia's political calendar was the regional elections. Repeatedly postponed, the elections were finally held in 12 of the country's 14 new regions on June 20. With international observers invited to oversee them, the elections proved so deeply flawed that many dismissed them as meaningless.

The electoral process took place against a backdrop of nine months of intermittent military clashes between eprdf and olf forces. Originally a rebel front, the eprdf by virtue of its military victory in 1991 became both a political party running the government and the national army. The olf, while also becoming a political party, retained a small and poorly equipped private army. Disputes over the territory to be controlled by each front led to a series of agreements between the two fronts in late 1991 and early 1992, each signed after prolonged and often bitter negotiations. Under the final agreement, both fronts vowed to encamp their forces before the regional elections were held. Each force flouted the agreement by keeping substantial numbers of soldiers in the field through election day. The eprdf in particular failed to encamp a significant number of its troops.

Intimidation was widespread before the election-practiced mainly by the eprdf, which controlled the great majority of the territory, but also by the olf and other fronts. eprdf forces aggressively promoted the cause of its member organization, the Oromo People's Democratic Organization (opdo), which was a directrival of the olf. olf offices were closed and candidates were harassed and imprisoned. Two leading members of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia, an organization increasingly allied with the olf, were killed at a roadblock in the town of Dire Dawa in January. The olf and related forces attacked eprdf military posts, sabotaged bridges and other installations, and increased their armed strength beyond that agreed to. On one occasion in March, olf forces attacked the major eprdf garrison of Harer in an attempt to capture it. The eprdf put opdo cadres in charge of voter registration wherever it could; the olf did the same in areas it controlled.

Other victims of harassment were the Ethiopian Democratic Union, which was prevented from opening an office in Tigray, and the All-Amhara People's Organization (aapo), whose candidates found themselves unable to register in many constituencies. The Ogaden National Liberation Front decided to participate in the elections in the ethnic Somali region, which were delayed until September, and many of its members were harassed and detained.

Shortly before the June elections, the olf and aapo announced their separate decisions to boycott the balloting. The olf also withdrew from the government, and its leaders went into voluntary exile or returned to the rural areas controlled by the olf.

On election day, the eprdf mounted offensives in a number of areas formerly controlled by the olf, such as western Wollega. Civilians and unarmed olf members were killed in the eprdf attacks.

Since the fall of President Mengistu Haile Mariam in May 1991, there has been an explosion of rural violence in the southern part of Ethiopia. The fighting has taken a variety of forms and has spread through diverse regions.

Some of the worst incidents of violence occurred when Oromo people attacked Amhara settlers in their vicinity. The Amhara settlers were originally introduced to the area to pacify it on behalf of the central government in the nineteenth century. Generations later, the legacy of communal antipathy remains. In the Arba Guugu area of Arsi, the history of Oromo-Amhara relations has been particularly tense, in part because the former government exploited the differences a decade ago in its suppression of olf activities in the area. In December 1991, olf cadres instigated repeated attacks on Amhara settlers. Villages were burned and civilians were killed. One hundred fifty-four Christians, mainly Amhara, were killed in Arba Guugu, and a further 46 were murdered in a neighboring area of Harerghe. In July and August 1992, another round of attacks were launched, allegedly at the instigation of a senior opdo cadre.

Harerghe province in the east of the country was the site of other fierce clashes. At Bedeno in mid-April, 150 civilians were reported killed, many of them by being forced to jump off cliffs. Most of those killed were ethnic Amhara. A commission of inquiry into the incident established by the Council of Representatives, the Ethiopian parliament, put the blame squarely on the olf. While admitting that its supporters were responsible for the massacre, the olf denied institutional responsibility.

On March 25, eprdf forces opened fire on a crowd of Oromo demonstrators at Weter, also in Harerghe. Different reports placed the death toll between 24 and 92. The eprdf claimed provocation, alleging that members of the crowd had fired first. The olf claimed that the demonstration was entirely peaceful.

In the north of Harerghe, the eprdf and the Issa and Gurgura Liberation Front have engaged in a series of clashes over the administration of the area and the regulation of trade. The Issa people are highly dependent upon trade, and have resisted attempts by the government to limit their access to trading licenses and their right to exact local customs duties. The Ethiopia-Djibouti railroad line has been sabotaged, and in response the government has sent punitive patrols to the area.

South of Harerghe, in the ethnic Somali area of the Ogaden, there have been a number of incidents of violence. For example, in the Kelafo area, members of the dominant Ogaden clan burned several dozen villages of the farming Rer Abbas people who live along the Shebelle river, forcing them to abandon their homes and take refuge in camps. A conflict between the Geri and Jaarso clans displaced 125,000 people near Jijiga, while 45,000 were affected by fighting between the Yabere and Isaaq.

In the far south of the country, there has been fighting between the Borena Oromo and the Marehan Somali. Other local ethnic groups, such as the Gujji, have also been drawn in. The fighting caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee to nearby Kenya. In the west, ethnic Anuak and Nuer have clashed, and Amhara settlers have been attacked. In July, an unknown number of highlanders were killed in a Nuer attack on a marketplace.

The rural violence has a multiplicity of causes: organizational rivalry; ethnic disputes, fuelled by the new ideology of "self-determination" which has encouraged an upsurge in nationalism; local disputes over land, water and grazing rights, in many cases brought about by the former government's policies of forcible relocation of the population; and simple banditry, often by some of the 400,000 demobilized members of Mengistu's army who now face widespread rural unemployment and poverty in an environment in which weapons are readily available.

Throughout 1992, the Transitional Government of Ethiopia has arbitrarily arrested and detained political opponents. In some cases, the government has shown an encouraging respect for habeas corpus, but these have been rare. For example, at the end of 1991, three leading members of the National Democratic Union, a "Centralist" opposition party, were detained for allegedly inciting violence during a demonstration in Addis Ababa. They were not formally charged. After writs of habeas corpus were presented, the three were released pending a court appearance.

After the olf withdrew from the electoral contest, the eprdf detained a large number of olf supporters. The precise numbers and the circumstances of the arrests have been impossible to ascertain. In April, the olf claimed that 250 of its members were being detained without charge. By October, there was credible evidence that well over 1,000 were imprisoned.

Ethnic Somalis suffered increasingly frequent abuses during 1992. Several leading members of the Ogaden national Liberation Front were detained early in the year, and at least one subsequently died in detention. The number of detainees reportedly reached 250 by September, when at least 11 people were killed while demonstrating against the eprdf. Also in September, a large number of Somalis, of both Ethiopian and Somali origin, were arrested in Addis Ababa. More than 1,000 were detained in what was described as a screening exercise to distinguish Ethiopian citizens from refugees.

One of the most glaring incidents of abuse was the refoulement of refugees from Sudan. In June, 23 Ethiopian refugees who were resident in Sudan were arrested by a joint Sudanese-eprdf security force. The 23 included four active members of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (eprp), a long-time opponent of the eprdf that had engaged in armed combat against the eprdf and was not in the Transitional Government; and a number of disabled former eprp combatants, together with some friends, relatives and servants. One of those arrested was Tadele Demeke, an Ethiopian student at the University of West Anglia in Great Britain, who was visiting Sudan to see her former husband and to conduct research for a degree. The refugees were taken across the border and held in several prisons. The Ethiopian government at first denied holding them but belatedly released 19 (keeping the four political activists) after an international campaign.

The refoulement of the 23 refugees drew attention to the eprdf's secret detention centers in Tigray. In 1991, four political leaders of the eprp were captured in combat inside Ethiopia, and disappeared into secret prisons in Tigray. Africa Watch has obtained evidence suggesting that the four are still alive, but the government refuses to comment on the case. There are also an undisclosed number of dissidents from within eprdf ranks held in prison, some for several years. These prisoners are denied family visits and access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (icrc). Some of them are reliably reported to have been subjected to physical abuse.

The olf has also engaged in arbitrary detention. In Jijiga, the olf kept a number of dissident Oromos in detention until the olf office in the town was forcibly taken by the eprdf in June. Some of these detainees reported having been tortured.

Conditions in detention have varied substantially. Officials of the former regime have been kept under good conditions and allowed family visits. Others held in secret or rural detention centers are often kept in overcrowded facilities with inadequate food. Confirmed reports of physical abuse are rare.

Except in a few cases in Addis Ababa, there is no effective judicial supervision of detentions. Policing and security functions in Ethiopia remain under the control of organizations that are not accountable under the law, or even answerable to the Council of Representatives.

Immediately after its military victory, the eprdf dissolved the security forces of the former regime, disbanded the army, andsuspended the police force pending an investigation of its members. The eprdf promised to reinstate a police force as soon as it could be purged of those guilty of abusive or corrupt practices. As a result, despite the laudable aim, Ethiopia was effectively without a police force until March 1992. This meant that the eprdf and the newly established neighborhood Peace and Stability Committees (pscs) were wholly responsible for policing. These organizations lacked the training and equipment for the task. For example, eprdf soldiers were required to police large and sometimes violent public demonstrations without riot control equipment but with only assault rifles. In addition, structures of accountability were not established.

The eprdf army assumed the role of national army in August 1991, although this was not publicly announced for several months, as well as a de facto policing role. eprdf forces have been responsible for a number of arbitrary actions against suspected criminals. Some alleged criminals have been shot on sight, although this was rarer in 1992 than in 1991. Others have been abusively detained. For example, 850 suspected robbers were held in a round-up in Addis Ababa in March. Their friends and relatives did not known where to turn to obtain information or to seek the prisoners' release. The eprdf routinely ignored court orders concerning alleged criminal detainees.

Peace and Stability Committees have faced similar problems. pscs were set up by the eprdf, and the eprdf zonal commanders have ensured that they are accountable only to the eprdf.

The Transitional Government has promised a new Judicial Commission and guarantees of the independence of the judiciary, and has enacted legislation to establish these. However, as in so many of the government's ventures, progress has been slow, creating a serious vacuum.

Throughout 1992, the judiciary was not functioning properly, either as an adjudicating body or as a check on arbitrary action by the eprdf and the pscs. Various factors contributed to the problem, including a proposal to suspend all judges who were formerly members of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia (wpe), the single party under Mengistu), delay in enacting new legislation, paralysis at the Ministry of Justice following the resignation of the minister early in the year, and the absence of a functioning police force. This created the vacuum in which the arbitrary actions of the eprdf and pscs were possible.

To fill this vacuum, justice in the north of the country is administered by People's Courts. Originally set up by the eprdf when it was a guerrilla movement, these courts are staffed by locally elected officials. Their shortcomings include a lack of independence from the eprdf, their failure to afford criminal defendants the presumption of innocence or access to counsel of their choice, and inconsistency in sentencing. The Ministry of Justice has criticized the procedures used by People's Courts, but so far without consequences.

Ethiopia under the eprdf has witnessed the flourishing of numerous political parties, representing an unprecedented varietyof opinions and platforms. These range from monarchists to separatists representing small ethnic groups. All parties can produce their own literature, and can organize public demonstrations.

The development of other institutions necessary for a flourishing civil society promises to be a slow process, despite the government's gradual enactment of legislation that is largely respectful of civil and political rights. The establishment of a free press is proving slow. A press law, with guarantees against censorship, was belatedly promulgated in October, but technical and commercial obstacles remain, particularly a lack of paper and printing presses. The formation of a Bar Association progressed slowly. The University of Addis Ababa was granted a new charter securing its academic freedom, and appointed its own President (a professor known to be wholly independent of the government). Academic appointments made under the previous government-including professors known to be hostile to the eprdf-have not been interfered with. However, there are indications that the government distrusts the university and is unhappy with the vigorous political debate that occurs on campus.

The government's treatment of the senior members of the Mengistu government has on the whole been good. None has been killed. About 1,500 remain in detention, under relatively good conditions, just outside Addis Ababa. However, the bringing of charges against them has been seriously delayed. Legislation for the creation of a special prosecutor to try those accused of crimes under the former government has been promised since the end of 1991, but little progress has been made.

During 1991, former wpe members were stripped of most of their civil rights, such as their freedom to work and travel. Most of these rights were restored in 1992. There has been no wholesale purge of government institutions. The only category of former wpe members who are barred as a group from their former posts are judges.

In 1991, workplace Grievance Hearing Committees (ghcs) were established to hear complaints against those who were corrupt during the former regime. The ghcs often acted in an arbitrary manner, dismissing and detaining people who were denied judicial recourse. These activities continued for the first months of 1992, until the ghcs were brought under the control of the Prime Minister's office and subjected to more systematic scrutiny. In May, the ghcs were abolished, and all outstanding cases were handed over to the labor courts.

The Right to Monitor

A number of human rights organizations were set up in 1991 and continued to function in 1992. The Ethiopian Human Rights Council (ehrco) is chaired by Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam, a strong critic of the current government. ehrco has been permitted to function and to publicize its criticisms of the government, but has also been subjected to a barrage of abuse in the government-controlled media. Another organization, abugida, is committed to public education in human rights.

In October, the government promulgated a press law that removes almost all censorship rules imposed by the former regime. However, almost all the media remains controlled by the government, there are chronic shortages of newsprint, and few journalists have the training or courage to test the limits of government tolerance.

The government has given free access to the country to foreign human rights organizations, and allowed the icrc to operate freely. International observers were invited to monitor the June elections, and given the freedom necessary to do so. However, the leader of the American observer team was expelled from the country, after allegedly expressing support for an independent Oromo state at an olf rally.

U.S. Policy

The U.S. government is the most prominent backer of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, and has excellent access to the President and other senior members of government. It has been sympathetic to the huge difficulties facing the Ethiopian leadership, and has provided assistance to help overcome them. At the same time, the U.S. embassy often appeared to be missing opportunities to use its privileged access to the Transitional Government to press for more marked improvements in human rights.

In April, the U.S. waived the provisions of the Brooke Amendment, which prohibits U.S. aid to any country that is in arrears on any loan payment to the United States, to make Ethiopia eligible for economic assistance. Ethiopia had lost its eligibility because the State Department held it responsible for failing to pay for military equipment purchased in 1976, although the equipment had not actually been delivered. The legal bar on economic assistance had proved embarrassing to the U.S. government, which until April 1992 had been able to provide only humanitarian aid to Ethiopia. In the summer, the U.S. pledged $161 million in development assistance, of which $60 million was delivered in September. The U.S. is active in assisting the Transitional Government in drafting a new constitution, formulating national election plans, and developing the institutions of civil society, such as a free press.

The U.S. government was moderately active in human rights initiatives, reportedly prompting the Ethiopian government on matters such as bringing detainees to trial and respecting the rights of former wpe members. It has encouraged attempts to negotiate agreements between the eprdf and olf, although for the most part other Western countries took the lead. However, there appear to have been no formal demarches on human rights issues, and little public criticism of the conduct of the elections.

The chapter on Ethiopia in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 1991, issued in January 1992, was an accurate reflection of reality. The testimony of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen before the House Africa Subcommittee on September 17 also included faircriticisms, but Cohen made it clear that these shortcomings would not affect U.S. relations with the Ethiopian government.

The Work of Africa Watch

Africa Watch maintains an active dialogue with the Transitional Government on human rights issues. On May 8, Africa Watch published a newsletter entitled "Waiting for Justice" which outlined concerns about the arbitrary actions of the eprdf, olf, pscs, ghcs and People's Courts, and expressed disappointment at the delay in bringing the cases of former officials to court. Africa Watch staff members visited Ethiopia in March and in June-July, and exchanged views with senior members of the Transitional Government, including the President. Africa Watch's criticisms were taken seriously by the government, which responded carefully and in considerable detail, and invited Africa Watch to send further delegations to Ethiopia to investigate alleged abuses. The Transitional Government responded positively to Africa Watch's suggestion that the charges brought against officials of the former regime should include crimes under common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. Africa Watch also campaigned for the release of the 23 refugees abducted from Sudan.

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