Part 5: Responses to Allegations of Human Rights Violations

Despite mounting evidence of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by Ethiopian security forces in Somali Region, the international response to the situation has focused mainly on increasing humanitarian assistance, but neglected to address the systematic abuses that are the core cause of the deteriorating situation.

The Ethiopian Government has simply denied evidence of abuses and attempted to prevent information leaving the area. In the words of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi:

We are supposed to have burned villages. I can tell you, not a single village, and as far as I know not a single hut has been burned. We have been accused of dislocating thousands of people from their villages and keeping them in camps. Nobody has come up with a shred of evidence. Nobody.272

The Ethiopian Government’s Response

The Ethiopian government is sensitive to criticism of its human rights record. However, rather than addressing allegations with concern, investigations, and efforts to improve accountability, the federal government’s principal response to allegations of abuses in Somali Region has been to suppress independent access, investigation, and reporting of the situation. It has done so through direct methods—such as detaining international journalists, aid workers, and victims of abuses—and it has done so indirectly, by creating a climate of intense fear that discourages Ethiopians and international observers from speaking about what they experience or witness. In the words of one anonymous letter slipped to an international visitor to Somali Region:

Once upon a time, a lion came to a village as a guest. The lion said that he doesn’t want any meat but would like milk instead. The villagers prepared the milk but then the big question of who will deliver [it] came up. What I mean is we have a lot of information to tell you, but we can’t. Because you will [leave] tomorrow and we will be killed. We do not want to be killed. 273

The government has also reacted to any public reporting with vehement denials and claims that reports of abuses are fabrications. Following a July 2007 Human Rights Watch press release warning of serious abuses, the Ethiopian Ministry of Information stated that there were “no attacks by Ethiopian troops on civilians and homes.”274 Following the expulsion of the ICRC and MSF’s public appeals for access to respond to the escalating humanitarian needs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed MSF was “exaggerating the situation” and denied “blocking any NGO” from the region.275 Following media reports of forced recruitment of civilians for the pro-government militia, including staff employed by internationally-funded projects in Somali Region, the Ministry of Information promptly denied any such practice.276

To date, according to all information available to Human Rights Watch, there have been no efforts by the federal or regional government to investigate, prosecute, or end the patterns of abuses described in this report. Acknowledging that there have been serious abuses, and cooperating in efforts to fully investigate and prosecute the crimes would be an important first step to improving the human rights situation in Somali Region. It would also be an important way to rebuild trust with communities whose confidence in the government has been shattered by years of systematic abuse.

The crimes described above are far too systematic and widespread to be considered the acts of rogue commanders. On the contrary, the available information indicates that specific policies were chosen to deliberately terrorize the civilian population. As described above, policies of forced relocation and economic punishment of ethnic Somali pastoralists are old strategies that the current EPRDF government seems to have simply recycled.

Further investigation is required to establish whether the patterns of killings, rape, and torture by the ENDF are specifically ordered at the highest levels. Irrespective of whether troops are explicitly commanded to commit these crimes, the fact that they are pervasive and often involve officers or officials in command, indicates that they are widely known and accepted as appropriate behavior. The laws of war do not only prohibit military and civilian leaders from ordering troops to commit such crimes; they also place a positive responsibility on commanders and civilian leaders with command authority to prevent and stop crimes that they know about, or should have known about.

A former ENDF soldier confirmed to Human Rights Watch that even if there is no explicit ENDF policy specifically ordering troops to abuse civilians, the pretext that civilians are ONLF supporters, whether true or not and regardless of evidence, is sufficient to justify any abuse with full impunity. He said:

Soldiers are not given orders to rape in town, bush and in detentions. But they are told the people they are fighting are the enemy who have been mislead and [are] stubborn. If they kill, the commander asks who was the person killed. The soldier would need to classify the victim as an ONLF member/supporter or other enemy, for instance. The commander registers the death as such [ONLF] without any further questions. If the soldier rapes, the commander does not ask [questions]. The soldier has been told, for instance, that people from Zone 5 are difficult, stubborn, extreme Islamists who do not agree with the government; that the land belongs to Ethiopia and it is compulsory for everybody to follow the rule.277

The International Response: A Wider Silence

International policymakers have increasingly taken a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” approach to Ethiopia. Over the past three years, the sharpest international condemnations of Ethiopian human rights abuses came in the wake of the May 2005 elections. After security forces killed scores of demonstrators protesting the election results, the World Bank, European Union, United Kingdom, and several other donors suspended direct budget support to the federal government, but soon resumed the aid flows via other channels, such as through regional governments.278

Almost three years after the elections, international criticism has dissipated although there has been little effort by the Ethiopian government to account for the serious abuses documented during the post-election violence or in the context of various security operations it has mounted in different regions.279

While the EPRDF government routinely rejects reports critical of its human rights record, particularly where the ENDF or other federal security forces are implicated, it has occasionally responded to them. For instance after the international criticism of post-election violence in 2005, the government established a national inquiry into the post-election violence that concluded that 193 people were killed by Ethiopian security forces—triple the official figure—and that most were shot, beaten, or strangled.280 However the deputy chairman of the inquiry, Judge Wolde-Michael Meshesha, alleged that the government officials pressured the inquiry team to change its conclusion that security forces used excessive force; both he and the chairman of the commission fled Ethiopia after receiving death threats. To date the report has not been made public and there was no known international reaction to the findings or the inquiry’s controversial aftermath.281

The Rationale for Donor Silence on Ethiopia

The muted international response to Ethiopia’s poor human rights record stems, among other reasons, from the fact that Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries, is one of the largest recipients of overseas development assistance (ODA) in Africa. In 2006 it received a net amount of ODA of US$1.947 billion or 14.7 percent of the gross national income.282

Donor governments appear to be reluctant to use this leverage to promote improvements in human rights. Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa, has one of the largest militaries and provides several thousand troops to UN peacekeeping operations, is the host of the African Union, and is an important regional power surrounded by authoritarian governments in Sudan and Eritrea. From an international perspective (as well as from the point of view of many Ethiopians) the current EPRDF government is viewed as an improvement over the previous Mengistu dictatorship, which was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians during its bloody 17-year rule.

The EPRDF government is credited with making significant economic progress in the face of serious challenges, including recovering from the devastating Mengistu years and the economic and human losses of the 1998 war with Eritrea.283 Over the past few years Prime Minister Meles has won praise from donors for poverty reduction and for efforts to decentralize the federal government and strengthen service provision at local levels.

In addition, Ethiopia is viewed by many western governments as a reliable and strategically important regional partner on counter-terrorism efforts. The counter-terrorism partnership, particularly with the United States, has assumed increasing importance amid growing concerns over the instability in neighboring Somalia.

Most donor governments are willing to downplay or ignore the government’s poor human rights record and opt for “quiet” diplomacy, where they react at all, due to fears that public criticism will rupture diplomatic relations. The EPRDF government has not hesitated to expel foreigners for voicing criticism, be they human rights activists, aid workers, journalists, or even European diplomats, a policy which has the desired effect of repressing outspoken voices in defense of human rights.284

Donor reluctance to criticize Ethiopia is compounded by the fact that many abuses go unreported, particularly in the rural areas far from Addis Ababa, and “lack of information” is frequently cited as a reason for inaction. However, where there is a genuine lack of information it is largely due to the Ethiopian government’s heavy handed suppression of national and international independent media and restrictions on freedom of expression. More often, key international governments and institutions ignore the available information about serious human rights abuses.

Western governments and companies are likely also fearful that a robust stance on human rights will strengthen Ethiopia’s ties to China.

Responses to Abuses in Somali Region

None of the major international donors to Ethiopia—the US, EU, and UK—have condemned human rights abuses in Somali Region or publicly called on the Ethiopian government to end them. Privately some diplomats concede that they are concerned about the human rights situation, yet public appeals have largely focused on humanitarian conditions and the need for Ethiopian authorities to facilitate access for humanitarian agencies.

The UN humanitarian assessment in Somali Region in late August 2007 prompted fresh concern over deteriorating humanitarian conditions. A confidential human rights annex to the assessment report (which was presented to the Ethiopian authorities but never published) concluded that “there are serious protection concerns relating to the civilian population and violations of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights in the Somali region. The protection of civilian populations and the investigation in to the human rights claims require urgent attention.”285 The annex also called for the urgent establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of abuses.286

Following the UN assessment, the European Union called for Ethiopia to “follow up all recommendations of the mission, including actions to protect civilians in conflict.”287  Diplomats in Addis Ababa sent several high-level delegations to the region, which prompted some releases of detainees from the many official and unofficial detention centers in advance of the visits. The UN established several new sub-offices in the region and in November 2007, the highest UN official responsible for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, visited the region. In advance of his visit, the Ethiopian authorities permitted a number of international humanitarian organizations to start operations in the region.288 After his visit, Holmes warned the UN Security Council that “already chronic food insecurity could give way to real famine conditions” and called on the Ethiopian government to investigate the allegations of abuses.289

While the UN and European Union have voiced public concern over the humanitarian situation, Ethiopia’s most important western donor and ally, the United States, has been publicly silent. At a September 2007 news conference in Addis Ababa, the US government’s top diplomat for Africa, Jendayi Frazer, described the allegations of abuses in Somali Region as “unsubstantiated.”290 Some observers told Human Rights Watch that the US embassy in Addis Ababa sent strong cables to Washington describing serious concerns over military abuses, and that these cables have been suppressed or ignored in Washington. Observers also say that while the US Ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Yamamoto, has privately raised concerns over human rights abuses with Prime Minister Meles on several occasions, publicly the US embassy in Addis Ababa has actively downplayed concerns in the face of a worsening humanitarian situation. 291

The US State Department’s annual review of human rights in Ethiopia, issued in March 2008, provided a disingenuous analysis of the situation, noting that “fighting between government forces and the [ONLF…] resulted in widespread human rights abuses.” The report then singled out only the ONLF for “widespread human rights abuses” while implying that crimes committed by government forces occurred when “forces acted independently of government control.”292

The UK has also showed little inclination to publicly criticize or assert the importance of human rights improvements with the EPRDF government. The UK’s aid in 2007-2008 is due to reach 130 million sterling or more than US$260 million, a doubling of the total aid given in 2004-2005.

In its annual report on human rights published in March 2008, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) devoted a paragraph to the conflict in Somali Region. But the FCO’s characterization of the conflict was entirely one-sided. The report singled out only the human rights abuses of “terrorist groups operating in this region” for criticism and noted with approval what it called “Ethiopia’s commitment to protect civilians in conflict.”293

A European Union troika delegation visited Somali Region in November 2007 but did not publicly comment on its visit. In early 2007, the European Commission increased funding for humanitarian assistance across the Horn of Africa in response to the worsening drought, but there was no mention of the abuses fuelling and exacerbating the humanitarian conditions.294

The ONLF’s April 2007 attack on Obole killed nine Chinese workers at the oil field project run by Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau (ZPEB), a subsidiary of the state-owned Sinopec. Some of the same companies previously condemned for their activities in conflict-affected areas of Sudan, such as the Swedish company, Lundin Petroleum, and Malaysian oil company, Petronas, have also engaged in oil exploration in Somali Region.295

Chinese officials immediately condemned the ONLF attack and said that it would not change Chinese policy of “conducting economic cooperation based on equality and mutual benefits in other countries.”296  Prime Minister Meles was also quick to note that the Ethiopian government had “taken effective measures to ensure it does not happen again,” while the ONLF continued to warn oil companies to stay away from the area.297 In November 2007, the Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia indicated that Chinese oil workers would return to the region, but made no comment on the allegations of Ethiopian military abuses.298

China justifies its silence on human rights issues by alluding to its core foreign policy of “non-interference” in what it considers to be the internal affairs of other countries. China is an important and growing economic partner of Ethiopia and Africa more broadly.299 Chinese-Ethiopian trade has increased 17 percent since 2006, to $660 million, and Chinese investment has reached $345 million from just $10 million four years ago, according to official figures. In addition to China’s involvement in oil exploration and drilling projects in both Somali Region and Ethiopia’s western Gambella state, Chinese companies are involved in an array of economic development and infrastructure initiatives, including Ethiopia’s first private industrial zone,300 hydropower projects,301 road construction,302 and other sectors. Still, China’s economic ties to Ethiopia are minimal compared to western countries.

The diplomatic strategy of focusing purely on a humanitarian response to the needs in Somali Region is fundamentally flawed. While increased and appropriately targeted humanitarian assistance is an essential component of the required response, it should not be seen as a substitute for action to curb the governmental abuses described in this report.

Given the constant pressure and threats international agencies already face from the Ethiopian authorities, especially Ethiopian staff, humanitarian agencies, including the UN, are not in a position to provide serious protection to civilians in Somali Region.

The responsibility to protect civilians lies elsewhere and must be urgently addressed. It remains, first and foremost, with the Ethiopian government, which must take serious measures not only to end the abuses, but to investigate and hold accountable the individuals responsible for them. However, it also lies with donor governments, who provide almost $2 billion of revenue to the Ethiopian government each year without demanding human rights accountability.

272 Alex Perry, “Interview, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi,” Time Magazine, September 6, 2007.

273 On file with Human Rights Watch.

274 “Ethiopia denies burning homes and displacing civilians,” APA, July 4, 2007.

275 “Ethiopia: Government denies “blocking” NGO,” IRINnews, September 4, 2007, (accessed March 22, 2008).

276 Ministry of Information, “Ethiopia denies New York Times report,” Press release, December 20, 2007.

277 Human Rights Watch interview with (name withheld), Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya, October 6, 2007.

278 “Ethiopia: Suspended funding redirected to poverty alleviation,” IRINnews, May 29, 2006, (accessed March 22, 2008).

279 The government appointed an Independent Commission of Inquiry to investigate the December 2003 massacre in Gambella, however the findings of the commission did not reflect the scale of the abuses or the role of the army. Regional officials also arrested several police in connection with the killings. See Human Rights Watch, Targeting the Anuak, pp. 43-46.

280 Anthony Mitchell, “Inquiry Triples Toll in Ethiopia Protests,” The Washington Post, October 19, 2006, (accessed March 22, 2008).

281 According to the US Department of State’s 2007 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Ethiopia, the final report of the Independent Inquiry Commission “found that security forces did not use excessive force, given demonstration violence.” US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Report on Human Rights Practices – 2007: Ethiopia,” March 11, 2008, (accessed March 22, 2008).

282 The World Bank’s concessional lending program, the International Development Association, is the largest single source of ODA, providing a gross $1.86 billion in 2005-2006. Ethiopia is also among the top recipients globally of both US and European bilateral assistance. In 2005-2006, Ethiopian received $498 million from the United States and $183 million from the European Commission. The United Kingdom was Ethiopia’s fifth largest donor in the same period, providing $120 million in gross ODA. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Aid Statistics, Recipient Aid Charts: Ethiopia, undated, (accessed March 22, 2008).

283 Ethiopia’s growth rate has been more than 10 percent for the past four years. Peter Heinlein, “Ethiopia’s PM Introduces Tough Anti-Inflation Measures,” Voice of America, March 18, 2008, (accessed March 23, 2008).

284 In August 2007 Ethiopia expelled six Norwegian diplomats for what Ethiopia called “interference in Ethiopia’s internal affairs.”  The diplomats were apparently trying to help resolve the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea. See “Norwegian envoys to leave Ethiopia,” BBC news online, August 28, 2007, (accessed May 6, 2008).

285 United Nations, Note on the Human Rights Claims in the Somali Region of Ethiopia, unpublished annex to the Report on the Findings from the UN humanitarian Assessment Mission to the Somali Region, Ethiopia, 30 August – 5 September, p. 1, on file with Human Rights Watch.

286 Ibid.

287 “EU urges Ethiopia to allow aid into Ogaden region,” Reuters, October 9, 2007, (accessed March 23, 2008).

288 “Six more NGOs to operate in Somali region,” IRINnews, November 20, 2007.

289 Edith Lederer, “UN humanitarian chief warns of crises in eastern Ethiopia and Somalia, Darfur deterioration,” Associated Press, December 6, 2007; “UN presses Ethiopia to probe Ogaden allegations,” Reuters, November 28, 2007.

290 Peter Heinlein, “US Official Urges Greater African Involvement in Somalia Peace Efforts,” Voice of America, September 9, 2007.

291 Human Rights Watch interviews with diplomats, Addis Ababa and Washington, December 2007-February 2008.

292 US State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Country Report on Human Rights Practices – 2007: Ethiopia,” March 11, 2008, (accessed March 22, 2008).

293 United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Human Rights Annual Report 2007,” March 2008, p.32, (accessed March 28, 2008).

294 “Horn of Africa: Funds to help cushion 12 million against drought,” IRINnews, March 18, 2008, (accessed March 24, 2008).

295 Lundin Petroleum has signed two contracts for exploration and production activities in four blocks of the “Ogaden Basin.” See Lundin’s website at (accessed March 24, 2008). In 2005 the ONLF warned Petronas to defer operations. “O.N.L.F. Statement on Malaysian Firm PETRONAS’ Oil Exploration in Ogaden,” ONLF press statement, July 24, 2005, (accessed March 24, 2008).

296 “China: Ethiopia Attacks Will Not Stop Africa Investment,” Associated Press, April 26, 2007.

297 Andrew Cawthorne, “Ethiopia rebel attack won’t deter Chinese-PM Meles,” Reuters, May 16, 2007,; and “Ethiopia rebels warn oil companies to stay away,” Reuters, August 8, 2007, (accessed March 24, 2008).

298 Andualem Sisay, “Ethiopia: Chinese oil workers return to Ogaden,” AfricaNews, November 12, 2007, (accessed March 24, 2008).

299 Chinese investment in Africa quadrupled between 2000 and 2005, from $10.6 billion to $40 billion, and is estimated to reach well over $60 billion in 2008. Craig Timberg, “In Africa, China trade brings growth, unease, “The Washington Post, June 13, 2006, (accessed March 24, 2008).

300 Binyam Tamene, “Ethiopia: Country, China to construct First Private Industrial Zone,” Daily Monitor (Addis Ababa), March 19, 2008, (accessed March 24, 2008).

301 “China, Ethiopia to work on hydropower,” United Press International, February 29, 2008.

302 Binyam Tamene, “Ethiopia: Govt to Award Addis-Adama Road Project to China Without Bid,” Daily Monitor (Addis Ababa), February 29, 2008, (accessed March 24, 2008).