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The International Response to Human Rights Abuses in Gambella

“I remember a certain chicken epidemic in China.  When a certain number of chickens had died, the Chinese government called an emergency meeting and the whole world was paying attention.  When I compare this with the response to what is happening to us in Gambella it is truly remarkable.”
– Anuak refugee, Ruiru, Kenya

In the immediate aftermath of the December 2003 massacre, a brief flurry of media attention spurred numerous expressions of international concern about the situation in Gambella.  Despite the Ethiopian government’s failure to take any meaningful action to address ongoing abuses in the region, international attention has since waned considerably.

Since the December 2003 massacre, there has been an almost complete dearth of reliable information about the situation on the ground in Gambella.  The event that sparked the massacre, an ambush of an ARRA vehicle, also drove nearly every donor and international agency to withdraw its personnel from the region.193  Aside from a few heavily guarded day-trips to Gambella town by representatives of UN and donor agencies, there was minimal international presence in Gambella for most of 2004.  The ICRC maintained a permanent presence in the region throughout the year, but security concerns have dissuaded it from attempting to travel to the areas where abuse is rampant.194  Western diplomatic sources told Human Rights Watch that one result of this lack of information has been that no governments or donor agencies have been comfortable challenging the Ethiopian government’s assurances that the persistent allegations of ENDF atrocities in Gambella are unfounded.195

The security issues that have led the international community to withdraw from Gambella are legitimate, but there is cause for concern that the Ethiopian government is manipulating those security issues to keep information from filtering out of the region for as long as possible.  In any event, reports of ongoing abuses in the region have emerged with enough frequency that the silence of the UN and donor community is impossible to justify. 

At the end of 2004, international agencies began moving back into Gambella town.  It remains to be seen whether these agencies will now press for broader access to the region’s most troubled communities.  In January 2005, the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia called on the Ethiopian government to follow through on pledges to hold accountable any military, police or government officials involved in human rights abuses in Gambella.196  Although that statement made reference only to events that took place in December 2003 and early 2004, it may be a sign that international interest has not faded completely.

[193] The ARRA vehicle that was ambushed on the morning of December 13, 2003 had license plates emblazoned with the logo of the United Nations.  Even though ARRA is in no way connected to the UN system and was using that logo without authorization, the attack led UN staff to fear that the armed Anuak group responsible for the attack was targeting UN personnel.  This led the United Nations to pull all of its agencies’ staff out of Gambella, and almost all foreign government agencies and international NGOs followed suit.  Human Rights Watch interviews with United Nations, donor government and civil society officials, Addis Ababa, late 2004.

[194] Human Rights Watch interview with ICRC official, Addis Ababa, late 2004.

[195] Human Rights Watch interviews with western diplomatic officials, Addis Ababa, late 2004.

[196] Press Release, U.S. Ambassador Aurelia E. Brazeal Visits Gambella, February 1, 2005, [online] (retrieved February 8, 2005).

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>March 2005