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The International Response and Official Reactions of the Ethiopian Government to Criticism about its Human Rights Record

Foreign governments and intergovernmental institutions have largely failed to address serious violations of human rights in Oromia, and in Ethiopia generally.  This has been the case despite consistently critical reporting on human rights in Ethiopia by various independent organizations.164 

Western donors pour more than one billion dollars into Ethiopia every year.  Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries and its government relies on this aid to finance a substantial portion of its budget.165  The United States is Ethiopia’s largest bilateral donor, with the United Kingdom and Italy also providing significant levels of assistance.166  Despite its dependence on outside assistance, the Ethiopian government has loudly rejected even measured criticism of its human rights record with sweeping, contemptuous denials.  When the U.S. State Department released its annual Human Rights Report on Ethiopia in February 2005, for example, the Ethiopian government denounced the entire report as “baseless,” “frivolous,” and based entirely on “rumors” and “lies.”167 

Despite the donor community’s enormous investments of aid, donor governments have generally appeared reluctant to challenge the Ethiopian government’s near-total refusal to engage in constructive dialogue about the government’s many human rights-related failings168.  Western governments have generally appeared too timid to challenge the government publicly.  Western diplomatic sources have told Human Rights Watch that precisely because the Ethiopian government reacts so angrily to criticism, the only option is to engage the government on human rights issues quietly and behind the scenes.  United States policy is also influenced by Ethiopia’s perceived status as the most stable country in the Horn of Africa and by its cooperation in Washington’s “global war on terror.”169 

This “quiet” approach does not appear to be bringing about any change in the Ethiopian government’s refusal to engage in constructive dialogue about human rights issues.  Recent events seem to indicate that the Ethiopian government may be becoming bolder in its willingness to ignore international criticism of its human rights record.  The Ethiopian government had previously committed to foreign scrutiny of the May 15 elections.  On March 30, 2005, however, Ethiopian authorities expelled on 48-hours notice three American non-governmental organizations that were doing election-related work from the country.170  While all three groups said that they had been meeting regularly with Ethiopian government officials and working in close coordination with the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, D.C., Ethiopian officials claimed that they had been operating in the country “illegally.”171  Soon after, the government forced the resignation of a respected senior member of the European Union observation team because he had contributed to a critical assessment of the 2000 national and 2001 local elections in Ethiopia that is widely regarded as the most credible and nuanced assessment of those polls.172  In April, the government refused to admit a Norwegian-led team of academics that is also associated with the 2000 and 2001 assessments.  The Ethiopian government has also recently taken steps to bar many of the domestic organizations that had been expected to field monitors on election day.173

The European Union is fielding a large team of observers with a mandate to examine pre-election conditions as well as election day.174  The Carter Center is also planning to send a team of fifty election observers, and the African Union has been invited to send observers as well.175  To accurately evaluate the electoral process, observers and donors will need to display a greater willingness to confront the broader context of repression and human rights abuses that lies behind the election process than donors have so far shown in other contexts.

[164] See, e.g., National Democratic Institute, An Evaluation of the June 21, 1992 Elections in Ethiopia, (Washington: National Democratic Institute, 1992); Human Rights Watch, The Curtailment of Rights (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1997); Human Rights Watch, Lessons in Repression (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2003); Amnesty International, Annual Reports 1992-2004 (London: Amnesty International); Amnesty International: Ethiopia and Eritrea: Human Rights Issues in a Year of Armed Conflict (London: Amnesty International, 1999).

[165] The UNDP’s annual Human Development Report in 2004 ranked Ethiopia 170th out of 177 countries in its Human Development Index rankings.  The 2004 Human Development Report also reported that Ethiopia received a total of just over $1.3 billion in foreign assistance in 2002, which is equal to 21.6% of the country’s total GDP.  See United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report, (New York: United Nations Development Program, 2004).

[166] Human Rights Watch interviews with western diplomatic officials, Addis Ababa, March 2005.

[167] Ethiopian News Agency, Ethiopia Describes Human Rights Report on Ethiopia by U.S. as Baseless, Frivolous, March 4,2005 [online] available at (retrieved April 14, 2005)

[168] For example, a recent Human Rights Watch report that documented extensive human rights abuses committed by the Ethiopian military in Gambella region was dismissed within hours of its release by the Ministry of Information as a “sheer fabrication” designed to “tarnish the name of the army.”  As of April 2005 the Ethiopian government had made no moves to engage in constructive dialogue about any of the issues raised in the report.

[169] Human Rights Watch interviews with western diplomatic sources, Addis Ababa.  The Ethiopian military is cooperating with the U.S. government in undertaking counterterrorism operations in the eastern Somali region and in subjecting the country’s border with Somalia to tighter controls.  The U.S. military in turn has sent personnel to Ethiopia to provide training to Ethiopian military forces.  Human Rights Watch interviews with western diplomatic and intelligence officials.  The U.S. Department of State, in its 2004 Country Reports on Terrorism, described Ethiopia’s support in the “global war on terrorism” as “solid and unwavering,” noting with approval government efforts to investigate and combat terrorism in the eastern Somali region as well as its willingness to share information related to terrorist activities.  United States Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2004, April 2005.

[170] The three NGOs were the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

[171] See Statement by the International Republican Institute (IRI), IFES and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on Expulsion of their Representatives from Ethiopia, April 1, 2005 [online] available at: (retrieved April 18, 2005).

[172] The head of the National Election Board, Kemal Bedri, defended his government’s action by claiming that Pausewang’s assessments of previous Ethiopian elections had been critical.  Ato Kemal stated that “When we saw the list [of observers] everybody knew him.  The election board knows him.  It didn’t take much investigation to know what he wrote.”  See Anthony Mitchell, “EU Election Observer Quits After Ethiopian Government Accuses him of Bias,” Associated Press, April 4, 2005.

[173] Civil society representatives estimate that recent regulations enacted by the National Election Board could have the effect of reducing the planned number of domestic observers by two-thirds.  The new regulations prevent any organization that did not register with the government as election observers when originally founded from observing the poll.  This eliminates most domestic organizations since election observation is a relatively new concept in Ethiopia.  See IRIN, “Election Board Criticized for Barring Local Observers,” April 12, 2005 [online] available at: (Retrieved April 18, 2005).

[174] Fifty-two long term observers from the EU observation team had arrived in Ethiopia by April 18, 2005, with 100 more short-term observers expected to arrive before the poll.  See IRIN, “More EU Election Observers Arrive in Addis,” April 18, 2005 [online] available at: (Retrieved April 18, 2005).

[175] The Carter Center team includes ten medium-term observers who had already arrived in Addis Ababa by early April.  See Carter Center, “Carter Center to Observe Ethiopian Elections,” April 18, 2005 [online] available at (retrieved April 18, 2005).

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