Human Rights Developments
In its inaugural session from August 20 to 24, 1995, the parliament formally declared the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The constitution divides the country into nine ethnically-based regions and gives each virtual autonomy in legislative, executive, and judicial matters. The constitution also provides each region the right to secede following a simple majority vote in a general referendum, subject to confirmation by a subsequent two-thirds majority vote in the regional legislature.
While some observers viewed these constitutional developments as offering a new model of ethnic accommodation, others accused the government of exposing the country to risks of fragmentation and political turmoil if the liberal constitutional provisions encouraged minorities to seek secession. The thrust of EPRDF policies has been the progressive devolution of powers to the ethnic groups or nationalities. Claiming that they have been left out of the political process during the TGE reign, the major opposition groups, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the All Amhara People's Organization (AAPO), and the Southern Coalition boycotted the May parliamentary elections. In part a result of this boycott, but also because the EPRDF was in control of all state institutions, the candidates of the EPRDF gained 483 out of the 548 seats in the Council of Representatives. Independent local observers noted that the actual voting in parliamentary elections was free and fair in a majority of cases they covered, although inconsistencies and irregularities were also registered. The final declared results indicated the virtual absence of the opposition in national and regional assemblies, a situation which raised concerns about how the opposition would be able to express its views.
Significant disagreements persisted between the government and various, mostly ethnically-based, opposition groups. A number of these continued to contest the legitimacy of the EPRDF and to claim that they were unfairly represented in the power structure. The opposition repeatedly complained about political harassment by police, local authorities, and security agents. While the government continued to deny these allegations, contending that it only clamps down on armed dissidents, reports published by independent local human rights groups and the local independent media indicated that the legal opposition suffered continuing abuses. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the parliament that he would form a human rights commission to investigate abuses.
The issue of accountability for human rights abuses was of particular relevance in Ethiopia during 1995. About 1,500 officials of the Derg government had been detained since 1991. It was only in mid-December 1994 that the top forty-four political officials, members of the inner circle of the Derg, were formally charged with the torture and murder of thousands of people. The others, mainly high government officials and military personnel, were in custody awaiting indictment for war crimes and murder. The new rulers of Ethiopia maintained that only public trials could end the culture of official impunity that made the crimes of the Derg possible.
It is within a context of civil strife and the emergence of a vibrant and dynamic civil society that many human rights abuses occurred during 1995. The political changes in Ethiopia since 1991 and the prospects of greater regional autonomy had the effect of generating a new dynamic of political participation at the national as well as the local levels. People came forward to express their opinions and to form political parties, civil groups, and organizations in an unprecedented exercise of democratic freedoms.
The Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) broke away from the EPRDF and took up arms against it in 1992, after failing to get a larger share in the TGE. Pockets of armed insurgency persisted in 1995 in various areas of Oromia. In an official communique dated June 18, the Oromo Liberation Front accused the Ethiopian authorities of being responsible for the killing on May 20 of Ali Youssif, one of its leading members, in front of his shop in Addis Ababa. The OLF alleged that this killing was one of a series of assassinations targeting its members and supporters. It cited the death in custody of a twenty-six-year-old farmer, Henok Jonatan, arrested in Najjo, in the western Oromia region, on March 16. He and nine other Oromo prisoners were believed to have been tortured. Similarly, Jafar Ibrahim Utto, a village elder in Kiyyo, in Oborra Province (eastern Oromia), was found dead on April 8 after being detained by pro-government militiamen. Two months earlier, two of his sons had reportedly been arrested, tortured, and murdered by members of the same militia.
The Amhara, who comprise about 25 percent of Ethiopia's estimated fifty-five million people, traditionally dominated political, cultural, and religious life in Ethiopia. Most political groupings representing them, particularly the All Amhara People's Organization (AAPO), were opposed to the new constitution, arguing that EPRDF policies risked destruction of a long heritage of cultural and political unity that was painstakingly developed over time. Dr. Asrat Woldeyes, a physician and founder and leader of AAPO, continued to serve a five-and-one-half-year prison sentence on charges of conspiracy to organize armed rebellion against the government. AAPO maintained that it is committed to nonviolent political action and that Dr. Woldeyes, and four other members of the organization tried with him, were discussing complaints of abuses by government soldiers and pro-government militia against other AAPO members in the meeting that was the basis for charging them with conspiracy against the government.
Article 29 of the new constitution, as well as the National Charter and the 1992 Press Law, provides for the right to free speech and press. However, many journalists continued to be detained, in most cases without charge. While a number of journalists were released from detention prior to the May elections, twenty-three were still detained by August, of whom fourteen were held without charge or trial. The whereabouts of three other journalists remained unknown. Of these, two have been missing for over a year and were feared to be held secretly by the security services for publishing critical articles. The authorities continued to deny that they arrested them. In July, the jury at the central high court sentenced the editor-in-chief of Zog newspaper to one year's imprisonment for printing "groundless allegations" about developments in the conflict in Oromia, while a second journalist from the same publication was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Following the failed assassination attempt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in June, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association reported a new wave of arrests of journalists in connection with articles about the incident. Mulugetta Lule, vice-chair of EFJA and manager of Tobia magazine, was reported to have been detained for sixty-four hours following an article on the questions raised by the attack about the security of the Organization of African Unity, which has its headquarters in the Ethiopian capital. Lule reportedly was released after a guarantor payed a 10,000 birr bail (around US$2,000), a prohibitive amount when compared to the average monthly salary of a journalist (about 750 birr). Taye Belachew, editor-in-chief of Tobia, reportedly was detained for twenty-one days. Other journalists, from Beza and Roha newspapers among others, were also detained for varying periods in relation to articles on the same incident.
Article 31 of the constitution guarantees freedom of association. Although the Ethiopian government permits the existence of independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), a number of NGOs from various fields regularly reported harassment in the form of delays in getting official clearances to operate, the intimidation or detention of personnel, or their arbitrary deregistration. The government requires the registration of NGOs with the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission and a special permit issued by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Following the formation of the new government in August, new registration regulations also required NGOs to register with the Ministry of Justice. In August, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission announced the deregistration of forty-seven NGOs, of which forty-five were national and two international. The commission sent letters to the NGOs' banks asking that their accounts be closed and to donor agencies advising them of the deregistration. Most of the affected NGOs appealed the decision to the RRC directly.
In a similar development, the Oromo Relief Association (ORA) complained in August that its offices and operations in Hararghe, Wallagga, and Borena had been closed down following a decision by the Council of Oromia. Reports indicate, moreover, that ORA workers were regularly harassed and subjected to arbitrary detentions, particularly in Borena area, and that the measures to halt the organization's relief operations were politically motivated. Administrative measures have been used to curtail the operational capacity or the existence of humanitarian and welfare NGOs as well as independent human rights monitoring groups (see below).
The Right to Monitor
Human Rights Watch/Africa as well as other international human rights organizations were able to conduct monitoring visits to Ethiopia in 1995. International human rights organizations and foreign journalists were invited to observe the proceedings of the war crimes trial.
The Role of the International Community
U.S. officials maintained that discussions with the Ethiopian government focused on several areas: regional issues in the Horn of Africa, especially relating to security concerns; domestic issues such as democratization, respect for human rights, and economic reform; and trade issues involving U.S. business interests. In pursuing these agendas, the U.S. had regular exchanges with Ethiopian officials, often at a fairly high level. However, the administration made no public statements during 1995 about the human rights situation in Ethiopia apart from the State Department's annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1994, which gave a comprehensive and critical account citing many patterns and cases of violations.
In February, National Security Advisor Anthony Lake met with representatives of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia after a series of meetings organized by the Congressional Task Force on Ethiopia. The Task Force, which was chaired by Congressman Harry Johnston, and included State Department Director of East African Affairs David Shinn, succeeded in bringing together representatives of major opposition groups and the TGE in an attempt to find a compromise that would allow the participation of the opposition groups in the political process and the May elections as a step toward the resolution of the outstanding issues in the long term. Negotiations collapsed, however, after only three days of talks. The TGE representative insisted that opposition groups accept the existing constitutional framework as a precondition for participation in future talks, a precondition that the opposition groups rejected. On February 11, a White House statement noted that the meeting with Lake "underscored the President's commitment to democracy in Ethiopia."
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Africa