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Human Rights Developments

The Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE) has brought about significant improvements in the human rights situation in the country since the overthrow of the government of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in May 1991 ended seventeen years of the rule of the Dergue. However, after three years in power, the TGE was still dominated by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the party whose military forces, together with those of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, defeated the Dergue. The EPRDF held thirty-two out of the sixty-four seats in the Council of Representatives; its army served as the national army of the country, as members of the other forces who fought against the Dergue had yet to be integrated into it. The army of the Dergue government was dissolved and all its members dispersed.

In its early days the TGE adopted a Transitional Charter ("the Charter") which guaranteed basic human rights. A Constitutional Commission was established to draft a new constitution, and a National Electoral Board was created to conduct elections in the country. The government ratified major international human rights instruments and permitted the emergence of more political parties and other associations than ever before in the history of Ethiopia. On the basis of the Freedom of the Press Proclamation (Proclamation No. 34/1992) about two hundred licenses were issued for independent journals and newspapers.

In addition, the TGE took initial steps to support the rehabilitation of former refugees returning from neighboring countries, as well as the hundreds of thousands of former soldiers of the disbanded army who were left without means of support. The government also acted effectively through its Relief and Rehabilitation Commission to avert the imminent famine which threatened an estimated 6.7 million people in 1994.

The systematic "disappearances" and massive extrajudicial executions that characterized the Dergue regime were no longer part of the general human rights situation in Ethiopia. However, the human rights situation was far from satisfactory, as arrests and detention of members of opposition political parties and journalists, and some killings in disputed circumstances, continued to occur. There were increasing allegations of human rights abuses, often involving intimidation of leaders of members of parties and groups that were competing with the EPRDF in the political process. These political opposition parties and groups included the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Sidama Liberation Movement (SLM), the Coalition of Ethiopian Democratic Forces (COEDF), the Ogadeni National Liberation Front (ONLF), Ethiopian Democratic Union Party (EDUP), the All Amhara People's Organization (AAPO), and the Council of Alternative forces for Peace and Democracy in Ethiopia (CAFPDE). The government appeared reluctant to hand over power to a democratically elected government in the event of its losing in the forthcoming March 1995 general election, when the period of rule by transitional government should come to an end. Unlike the economy, which was doing relatively well, the political situation in Ethiopia appeared to be deteriorating, and tension was mounting.

Members of the opposition parties suffered intimidation, harassment, and other abuses, particularly at the hands of local officials. In many areas, political opponents, despite the freedom to organize, found administrative obstacles to freedom of expression and association insurmountable. The Peaceful Demonstration and Public Political Meeting Proclamation (Proclamation No. 3/1991), which guarantees the right to peaceful demonstration and public political meetings, was largely ignored or misinterpreted, depending on the region in which an application is made.

Although the law does not require political parties to obtain permission to hold public meetings, permits were nevertheless generally required. Furthermore, permission was often refused or delayed to such an extent that parties such as the EDUP, AAPO, and CAFPDE did not have the time to organize effectively or to inform the public of their activities. Some political parties found their meetings surrounded by security personnel who could be seen in the streets advising people not to attend.

The harassment of political opponents extended to personal intimidation and harassment of party members and officials. In Addis Ababa, Ato Aberra Yemane Ab, of the COEDF, was arrested in December 1993 when he arrived in the country for a peace conference, and was still in prison at the time of this writing. Though charges against Mr. Aberra at the time of his initial arrest were dismissed by the courts in April 1994, he was detained indefinitely by virtue of a fresh order by a lower court without formal charge or trial. Members of the SLM, ONLF, and AAPO were also arrested and detained without charge or trial.

Those killed by EPRDF security in 1994 include more than a dozen officials and alleged members of the ONLF in the Somali region, as well as six AAPO members in the Amhara region and five SLM members and officials in and around Awasa town in the Sidamo district. Some of these killings occurred during armed clashes, but others occurred in disputed circumstances in which there was reason to believe killings were arbitrary.

One hundred and fifty-eight supporters of AAPO were detained in September, on charges of staging an illegal demonstration, but released twelve days later on October 2, 1994. They were among the hundreds of AAPO members and supporters who had congregated at the court's compound when the President of the organization, Professor Asrat Woldeyes, already imprisoned on a previous occasion, went on trial on another charge in September. At least fourteen members of AAPO were held at Alem Bekagne (World's End) the central prison in Addis Ababa on different charges and without bail.

At least two hundred of the estimated 20,000 members and supporters of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the main organization which helped the EPRDF form the transitional government in 1991, were still detained in Hurso, Eastern Ethiopia. In September 1994 alone, 194 members of the Sidama Liberation Movement (commonly known as SLM1 to distinguish it from the pro-government SLM2) were arrested and held in Awasa prison. The chair of SLM1, a very outspoken ex-member of the Council of Representatives, Ato Woldeamanuel Dubale, fled to the United Kingdom after escaping an assassination attempt attributed to EPRDF security in Awassa town in 1992.

More than thirty-seven alleged supporters of the OLF were also arrested on September 3, 1994, in the town of Ambo when they gathered to give condolences to the family of Ato Darara Kafana, a sixty-year-old Oromo businessman, killed by uniformed men in Ambo. Among those arrested was sixty-four-year-old Olli Atomsa.

Outside Addis Ababa and a few other major cities, political activities were subjected to more arbitrary control, and in some regions the local chiefs did not abide by formal guidelines on freedom of association. Supporters of opposition parties were often regarded as enemies of the government. In the Tigray region, members of the Ethiopian Democratic Union Party (EDUP) complained of intimidation and harassment by local authorities belonging to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF).

Unequal access to the mass media was another major concern in the democratization process, although unfairness was vehemently denied by the head of the Ethiopian News Agency, Ato Amare Aregawi, the most powerful person in the Ministry of Information. Technically, all of the twenty-five or more political parties that were legally registered in May 1994 were to be given regular access to television and radio air time, by a decision of the Council of Representatives. In practice, the allocation was still arbitrary, and liable to be abused. There was a perception of unfair competition among political parties. The Ministry of Information assisted the few parties that needed help to prepare programs for broadcasting. Every other party was entitled only to "campaign time" (available only during the campaign period). Prior to the June 1994 election of the constituent assembly, some parties were specifically denied air time because the Council alleged that this privilege had been abused to "insult other organizations" rather than promote a political program.

The fairness of the political process continued to be a cause for concern. It became increasingly difficult to distinguish between the EPRDF as a political party and the EPRDF as the government in power. Opposition parties lacked equal opportunities and facilities to compete effectively with the government. In some regions the government administrative building also housed EPRDF party offices, which were guarded by security men in military uniform.

On June 5, 1994, elections were held for the Constituent Assembly, the body responsible for debating and enacting the draft constitution. However, the major opposition political parties all boycotted the elections for the Assembly on the grounds that they had been excluded from participation in the drafting of the constitution. Consequently, of the entire 548 seats, 464 (84.7 percent) were won by candidates representing the EPRDF.

The government's ongoing suppression of freedom of the press heightened the feeling of anxiety, fear, and confusion in the country. In the first six months of 1994 twenty-three journalists were detained or subjected to fines because of their critical writings. This had a profound impact on the fledgling independent press, and a number of private newspapers shut down as a result. At the time of writing, there were eight journalists in prison. Keleme Bogale and Tewodros Kebede, both working for Zog, an Amharic weekly, were arrested in the second week of October 1994. Other journalists who were also detained, and released on bail, were Tefera Asmare, Daniel Kifle, Girma Endrias, Habtamu Belete, Ezeddin Mohammed, Girma Lemma, Melaku Tsefaye, and Tsefaye Tadesse.

A number of factors contributed to the press's current problems, including the provisions of the press law itself and the government's apparent disposition to secrecy. The press law (Press Proclamation No. 34 of October 21, 1992) uses such vague and ambiguous language in regulating the content of what journalists may write_as can be found in article 2.4(c)_that it can easily be abused and manipulated in harassing journalists by bringing criminal charges against them if they are critical of government policies or action, and setting bail too high for them to be discharged awaiting trial.

The presence of soldiers in large numbers moving about in civilian communities caused insecurity, although their number was decreasing. The national army, which was in effect and composition the armed wing of the EPRDF, was not restricted to the borders, or those areas presenting high security risks, as stipulated in the Deployment of the State "Defense Army of the Central Transitional Government" Proclamation. These soldiers were in most cases fully armed, often without any form of identification and not in full military uniform. EPRDF soldiers were generally reported to be more responsible than soldiers during the Dergue regime, but reliable accounts of intimidation, harassment, and other forms of abuse nevertheless abounded. A good number of the soldiers did not speak the language of the community where they were billeted, which led to increased tension, fear, abuse, and misunderstanding.

The government's policies on regionalization, ethnicity and language continued to have profound effects on human rights in the country. The TGE created fourteen self-governing regions divided along ethnic lines. The Charter guaranteed the right of every nation (defined as a people living in the same geographic area with a common language and identity) to self-determination. Each region had the added right to adopt its own language.

Though ethnic-based hostilities decreased in intensity and frequency after the adoption of this new policy, they nevertheless continued. This was largely due to failure, on the government's part, to expressly provide for the protection of minorities and ethnic groups dwelling outside their home regions. Inflammatory remarks by the government and local officials, including allusion to Amhara as "neftegna" (meaning "musketeers," a reference to the sort of weapons they used to carry in the past), particularly in Oromo areas dominated by the Oromo People's Democratic Organization, and as "the oppressors" by the troops of the Tigray People's Liberation Front stationed in the South, continued to perpetuate ethnic tensions and hostilities in the country.

The ongoing struggle for secession in the ethnic Somali area of the Ogaden (now known as Region Five) resulted in continuing bloodshed and threatened future peace and stability in the country. It also provided a disturbing picture of the problems which could face the country in the future if the issue of secession is not settled. The Charter guarantees a right to secession of a people if they are "convinced that their rights are denied, abridged or abrogated." It remained unclear how secession can be peacefully accomplished in Ethiopia under the new policy.

The government had yet to review its policies on land and language, which have contributed to loss of life and enhanced ethnic tensions in the country. Nor had the government adopted specific policies to protect ethnic minorities, to define the rights of ethnic groups in divided communities or to provide specific protection for dispersed groups and persons living outside their ethnic base.

Since the EPRDF assumed powers in Ethiopia in 1991, about 1,300 officials and others associated with the former Dergue regime have been in detention for their alleged involvement in various atrocities committed by the regime. While most of the detainees were held in Addis Ababa, others were held in detention centers in other parts of the country. For more than three years, the detainees were held without charge as investigations continued and a new judicial system was established. The Office of the Special Prosecutor (SPO) created to handle prosecutions attributed the delay in bringing charges and initiating the trial process to difficulties in gathering evidence. On October 25, a range of charges were presented against sixty-six senior officials of the Dergue regime. Some of the accused, including Mengistu, were to be tried in absentia since their extradition could not be secured.

Attempts to extradite Mengistu from Zimbabwe failed, despite a formal request in February and the visit of the Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ato Seyoum Mesfin, in August 1994. An extradition treaty was signed, however, with Djibouti in September 1994, which should help in bringing some of the accused to trial in Ethiopia.

The Right to Monitor

A key factor in establishing confidence is the right of human rights organizations to monitor. The transitional government was generally very open to monitoring by human rights organizations based outside the country. Human rights monitoring by local human rights groups was more restricted, however. Several local human rights and development organizations existed in Ethiopia but were required to obtain permits subject to annual renewal. Some were denied permission to operate or experienced extensive delays in obtaining permits.

Two human rights organizations, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and Gadado (an Oromo word meaning "agony"), were actively involved in receiving complaints, documenting abuses, and publishing their findings. The government denied both organizations formal registration, thereby severely restricting their ability to operate. Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, Chair of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, was taking the government to court for denying his organization a license, and to contest its claims that the Human Rights Council was "a political organization," that "sides with the opposition," was "ethnically oriented," or engaged in inaccurate reporting. Woldemariam had previously been the target of verbal attacks by the government. Detained in 1993 and since released on bail, he had yet to be charged or tried with any crime.

U.S. Policy

The U.S. moved from unequivocal support of the transitional government, to more cautious expressions of solidarity and support, but stopped short of seriously, publicly criticizing the government on human rights. Generally, the United States appeared reluctant to stigmatize the government that it helped to set up, or to deal with mounting complaints by opposition parties.

This failure by the U.S. to publicly identify with the human rights cause encouraged misrepresentation of U.S. policy by the Ethiopian government. For example, following his meeting with President Clinton in August 1994, according to the BBC summary of world broadcasts (September 6, 1994), President Meles said that U.S. officials considered attacks on the transitional government by the opposition to be "hooliganism." Human rights concerns were reportedly raised by the State Department and the White House at every meeting with Meles. State Department officials told Human Rights Watch/Africa that Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs George Moose discussed concerns about press freedom, detention without trial and free association, particularly in the context of next year's elections. While in the U.S., President Meles also met briefly with President Clinton and with Defense Secretary William Perry, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and AID Director Atwood. The meeting with the Department of Defense was said to focus on Ethiopia's leadership in the talks on Sudan within the framework of the Inter-governmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD), and for the participation of Ethiopian forces in international peacekeeping.

The U.S. government has provided significant foreign assistance to Ethiopia, and should use that leverage to encourage human rights improvements. After South Africa, Ethiopia is the largest recipient of U.S. aid in sub-Saharan Africa. In fiscal year 1994, the U.S. provided $135.69 million in economic aid ($37.31 million in the Development Fund for Africa; under PL480, $55.80 million under Title II and $42.50 million under Title III), and under others items.

The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa was not a forceful public proponent of human rights, and refrained from criticizing the government for its human rights record. The former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, Marc Baas, noted in a May 1994 interview with The Ethiopian Herald, a government-owned English-language daily, that the U.S. was concerned about the number of people detained without charge, but he went on to applaud the government for some recent releases and said that he thought that a large part of the problem was that no infrastructure existed for the processing of persons suspected of crimes. He also stated that he remained concerned about the unintentional signal that the transitional government might be sending by arresting and prosecuting journalists.

Similar, cautious approaches were used by the State Department. In February 1994, Assistant Secretary of State George Moose gave an interview to The Ethiopian Herald in which he was asked about the state of human rights in Ethiopia. His response was that he recognized that were still improvements to be made and that the U.S. government intended to continue making its views known, as in the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1993 and in ongoing discussions with Ethiopian authorities.

U.S. officials did give rhetorical support to the need for respect for human rights. In a press conference in December 1993, Ambassador Marc Baas stated that support for democratization was the keystone of U.S. policy toward Ethiopia, in addition to promotion and respect for human rights and the development of economic reform.

The Work of

Human Rights Watch/Africa

Representatives of Human Rights Watch/Africa traveled to Ethiopia in the spring of 1994 to investigate issues of accountability for human rights violations by officials of the previous regime, and questions of freedom of association and press under the present government. Some of the findings of this mission were published in Human Rights in Africa and U.S. Policy, a special report by Human Rights Watch/Africa for the White House Conference on Africa held June 26-27, 1994.

On July 27, 1994, the executive director of Human Rights Watch/Africa testified before the Subcommittee on Africa of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, highlighting various concerns arising from the findings of the mission and subsequent follow-up monitoring, including rising ethnic tensions in Ethiopia. A report on accountability issues was due to be published before the end of 1994.

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