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Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - Ethiopia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1992
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - Ethiopia, 1 January 1992, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca3fc.html [accessed 23 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

The story of human rights in Ethiopia during 1991 falls into two distinct phases: before May 28, the day on which the government of former President Mengistu Haile Mariam surrendered, and after May 29, when the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) took control of Eritrea and a government headed by the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) seized power in the remainder of the country. While human rights abuses occurred on both sides of the dividing day, they were very different in nature. Overall, the human rights situation in Ethiopia is now enormously improved.

The year opened with the end of a prolonged lull in the civil war, in which neither side had made much progress for about ten months. Still, abuses had continued, notably the bombing of civilian targets by the Ethiopian air force and violations associated with forcible conscription into the Ethiopian armed forces. Violations associated with forced conscription included the use of press gangs and other arbitrary and violent means of recruitment without due process or an opportunity for conscripts to communicate with their families; the maltreatment of conscripts and summary execution of those attempting to escape; and the conscription of children under age fifteen.

Famine conditions persisted in several parts of the country. The Joint Relief Partnership of the Ethiopian churches was successfully transporting food across the battle lines into EPRDF-held Tigray, but the government continued to bomb relief convoys moving across the border from Sudan. In January, the EPLF, the government and the United Nations belatedly agreed on a procedure for transporting food from the EPLF-held port of Massawa to the government-held city of Asmara.

A particularly egregious abuse by the air force occurred on May 8, when fighter-bombers attacked the small Tigrayan market town of Sheraro, killing fifteen and wounding ninety civilians. Sheraro lay several hundred miles behind the front line and thus had no military significance; it did, however, have symbolic significance as the first town occupied by the Tigrayan rebels in the 1970s.

In late February, the war suddenly escalated when the EPRDF launched a major military assault on government positions in the northwest. The attack was stunningly successful and set in motion a relentless advance on Addis Ababa, which culminated in the flight of President Mengistu on May 21 and the capture of the city a week later. The advance saw abuses, principally by the government. These included the summary execution of over 120 prisoners in Gonder prison, the bombing of civilian targets and the burning of villages. On the rebel side, there were reports of detentions of suspected political opponents and the forcible dispersal of hostile demonstrations. The advance also brought the EPRDF into conflict with the guerrilla forces of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP), a conflict which continued until the end of the year.

A joint EPRDF-Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) force also approached the camps, where about 270,000 southern Sudanese refugees were seeking shelter from the war in Sudan. As the fighting approached, the refugees fled back into Sudan, creating a humanitarian emergency. While the camps were never actually attacked by the EPRDF or the OLF, a general breakdown in law and order in the border area led to killings by local militias. The refugees were also subject to abuses by the Sudanese government, notably aerial attacks (see chapter below on Sudan).

In Eritrea, the EPLF advanced simultaneously on the port of Assab and the city of Asmara. EPLF shelling of Asmara hit a relief airplane and forced the premature ending of a U.N. relief airlift. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian army in Asmara refused to distribute the international relief brought to the city from Massawa, evidently holding it as a reserve for its troops. Government soldiers launched deliberate reprisals against civilians, such as the execution of prisoners in response to successful EPLF operations. There were also numerous instances of soldiers killing local residents and looting their homes. The EPLF intensified its campaign of assassinating alleged security-force collaborators, claiming that the people killed had been previously tried in absentia and warned to cease their criminal activities.

The escalation of the war saw a further crackdown on civil and political rights in government-controlled areas. A notable abuse was the forcible conscription of school and university students to the armed forces. Students were simply rounded up and bused off.

The EPRDF occupied Addis Ababa on May 28. About seven to eight hundred civilians were killed in the occupation, mostly because of explosions at ammunition dumps. During the occupation of Addis Ababa, about four to five hundred civilians were killed when an ammunition dump exploded on the western periphery of the city. The civilians were apparently engaged in looting the arms depot when a member of the EPRDF fired in their direction, apparently to deter them, and set off the explosion. About two hundred people, combatants and civilians, were killed in the last battles in the city as Mengistu's final loyal forces fought to the last. On June 4, in an act of sabotage, another ammunition dump was exploded, almost certainly by supporters of the former regime, and one hundred were killed and 130 wounded.

While occupying the city, the EPRDF was confronted with several demonstrations. Many of the demonstrators were armed with stones, and a few with firearms. The EPRDF combatants had neither training in riot control nor appropriate equipment, and used their firearms on several occasions. In a series of incidents, at least two EPRDF members and ten demonstrators were killed.

Although large-scale war has now ceased, there have been continuing disturbances in several parts of the country, notably the Afar lowlands and the Oromo and Issa areas of the southeast. Some of these have involved significant loss of civilian life. The underlying reason for the continuing violence has been the century-old legacy of bitterness felt by marginalized people toward their Amhara rulers. The immediate spark has been disagreements over whether EPRDF or local forces should police certain areas. A major dispute in Dire Dawa, in eastern Ethiopia, was between the Oromo and Issa communities over land rights, which led to several dozen deaths. These disputes have led to friction between the EPRDF and the OLF, Issa and Afar organizations.

Upon seizing power, the EPRDF immediately instituted a number of welcome measures, such as releasing all political detainees, dissolving the security organizations of the previous regime, and promising that those primarily responsible for gross abuses of human rights under that regime would be brought to justice, with due process and in the presence of international observers. In July, a national conference was held with most groups represented, with the notable exception of the EPRP. A Council of Representatives was convened and a Transitional Charter was adopted. Democratic elections were promised within two years. These steps signified the most serious attempt in fifteen years to start a peaceful political process that could bring together the disparate groups of Ethiopia. Progress has been hampered by the lack of a democratic tradition, considerable distrust among groups, and the EPRDF's status as the only group with a sufficiently clear and comprehensive command structure to operate as a functioning political party. Partly because of this organizational disparity, and partly because of its Marxist-Leninist background, the EPRDF has to a large extent monopolized government operations, with other organizations assuming a more token role. The adoption of a regional administrative structure at the end of the year, probably a forerunner to a federal constitution, is likely to go some way toward distributing power more equitably.

The Transitional Charter allows for the formation of political parties, freedom of assembly, and a free press. Numerous political parties, most of them ethnically based, sprang up. However, the EPRP and parties believed to be associated with the former regime were prohibited. Numerous peaceful demonstrations reflecting many shades of political opinion now occur, although there has been friction in the case of one party, the Union of Democratic Nationals (UDN), which takes an aggressively anti-government line. On one occasion in October, a UDN rally was partly dispersed when government soldiers fired over the heads of demonstrators who had congregated outside the Eritrean mission in Addis Ababa. Progress toward a free press has been slow because of delays in drafting a press law, as well as a lack of newsprint and trained journalists. Still, the Amharic press contains much forthright criticism of the government and other political organizations.

Many members of the previous government have been detained. The true number is not known, but estimates range from 5,000 to over 100,000 (the latter includes interned ex-soldiers). Progress has been slow in reorganizing the judiciary, and only in November was draft legislation presented to the Council of Representatives. In the meantime, those suspected of being responsible for human rights abuses or corruption during the previous regime were held without charge. Some alleged offenders were identified by informal "people's courts," where they were accused in public by alleged victims or their relatives. Preliminary screening of those in detention has been the responsibility of secretive committees organized by the EPRDF. Despite their closed nature, these investigations have yielded the release of substantial numbers of detainees, although for the time being members of the former ruling party, the Workers' Party of Ethiopia, are banned from traveling abroad or returning to their former employment.

Conditions in detention centers range from extremely good (the Yekatit 66 Political School, where high-ranking members of the former government are held) to poor and overcrowded (according to reports from detainees who have been held in police stations and neighborhood and provincial prisons). There have been no reports of torture or physical abuse.

Following the occupation of Addis Ababa, members of the former police force were suspended, pending a thorough reorganization of the force and the prosecution of those guilty of abuses and corruption. Policing duties were taken over by EPRDF soldiers. While the discipline of the EPRDF soldiers has been exceptionally high, and they are generally regarded as respectful of civilians, there were a number of summary executions of looters (during the occupation of Addis Ababa and immediately thereafter) and common thieves (through the end of the year). In some cases, "people's courts" have passed sentences of death for suspected common criminals, who have been executed on the spot. The government promises that the reorganization of the police and the judicial system will bring these abuses to an end.

In Eritrea, the EPLF occupied the entire territory on May 26. In doing so, it captured over 100,000 soldiers of the former government, plus dependents. Almost all of these soldiers and dependents, as well as other residents of non-Eritrean origin, were expelled from the territory shortly afterwards. Expulsions continued throughout the year, including an incident in October in which 424 non-Eritrean orphans, resident in church- and government-run orphanages in Asmara, were expelled. There have been some allegations of the use of force, and the expulsion of people who had lived most of their lives in Eritrea.

The EPLF has not cooperated fully with the transitional government in Ethiopia in allowing the use of Eritrean ports for famine-relief supplies. The EPLF did not hold a political conference or invite the other Eritrean fronts to participate in a transitional government, with the result that there is opposition to the new government in some parts of Eritrea. The EPLF has promised a referendum on independence in two years, followed by a multiparty democracy, but has not made concessions to political opponents in the meantime.

The EPLF held a large number of detainees for a short period after its occupation of the territory, but by year's end had cut the number down to about nine hundred. It has said that these will all be brought to trial.

The Right to Monitor

Given the level of repression under the Mengistu government, it was not possible for human rights groups to exist. Since May, a number of new groups who plan to monitor human rights have been established. They are the Ethiopian Human Rights Council; the Ethiopian Congress for Democrats; the human rights committee of the Committee of Eleven, set up by academics; and a Bar Association, which is in formation. A number of the new groups have been sharply critical of certain government policies without suffering reprisals.

Both Africa Watch and Amnesty International have been able to visit Ethiopia since the new government came to power. No human rights group has yet been established in Eritrea.

U.S. Policy

U.S. policy toward Ethiopia also followed a "before and after" pattern. From January to May, the United States actively pushed for a negotiated peace. It put pressure on both sides to make concessions, and appeared to believe that the war was in a permanent stalemate. The United States in March withdrew support for the cross-border famine-relief operation into EPLF- and EPRDF-held areas, reportedly to pressure those fronts to negotiate. After protest from voluntary agencies, support for the operations was quickly restored. Meanwhile, on the government side, a major U.S. concern was the emigration of the remaining Ethiopian Jews to Israel. After prolonged stalling by the Ethiopian government – which was trying to use its Jewish population as a bargaining chip to obtain arms – the final Jews were airlifted to Israel in the dying hours of the Mengistu government.

As the peace talks opened in London on the morning of May 27, it was evident that the Ethiopian government had no option other than unconditional surrender, and that the immediate danger was a complete breakdown in law and order in Addis Ababa due to the large number of deserting troops. Accepting a military fait accompli, the U.S. government recognized the EPRDF as the new transitional government of Ethiopia, and the EPLF as the government of Eritrea. The latter meant that the United States reversed its long-standing policy in opposition to Eritrean independence. This reversal appears to have been influenced by a desire to avoid the breakdown in law and order that followed the fall of Samuel Doe in Liberia and Mohamed Siad Barre in Somalia, as well as by the humanitarian concern of ensuring a continued flow of relief supplies. The U.S. government thus found itself in the unexpected position of supporting a government headed by the EPRDF, which until shortly before had espoused a hard-line Marxist-Leninist ideology. Herman Cohen, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, showed a remarkable flexibility during the power transfer which certainly helped to avoid what might have been high loss of life.

The U.S. government has been enthusiastic about the prospects for Ethiopia under the EPRDF-led government, although it has criticized the EPLF for the expulsions and the lack of cooperation in permitting the use of the port of Assab. This enthusiasm has led to a number of cases in which asylum seekers in the United States, mostly ethnic Amharas with sympathies for the EPRP, have had their applications refused on the grounds that Ethiopia is now at peace and progressing toward democracy. This position ignores the ongoing conflict between the EPRDF and EPRP, which is sufficient grounds for suspecting that EPRP supporters would be at risk if they were to return to Ethiopia under current conditions.

The Work of Africa Watch

In early 1991, Africa Watch published two newsletters on Ethiopia. The first was issued on March 5, one year after Mengistu's announcement of the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism. The newsletter assessed the human rights situation and concluded that the government had not made any serious effort to promote respect for civil and political rights. The second newsletter, published four weeks before the fall of Addis Ababa, addressed human rights concerns as the government crumbled, reporting abuses by all sides. Africa Watch obtained wide media coverage during the week when Addis Ababa fell and the U.S.-convened peace talks were held in London; this included numerous radio and television appearances (BBC, CNN and others) and several published articles, including articles by the staff in The Independent (London), the Nairobi Law Monthly and the Southern African Political Economy Monthly.

In September, Africa Watch published an extensive report entitled Evil Days: Thirty Years of War and Famine in Ethiopia. The report covers the entire period since the outbreak of war in Eritrea in 1961, with two main purposes. One is to document the abuses in the numerous wars in the country over the last thirty years, drawing attention to some of the neglected wars in the south as well as the wars in Eritrea and Tigray. The second is to reveal the role of war and human rights abuses in the creation of famine. Specifically, the report documents the way in which the counterinsurgency strategy followed in the north from 1980 to 1984 was instrumental in creating the famine of 1983 to 1985. It also describes the way in which the government later used and abused internationally donated food relief to further its war aims. This aspect of the report has disturbing implications for the way relief organizations, specifically the United Nations, conduct themselves in civil conflict.

In October, an Africa Watch mission visited Ethiopia at the invitation of the Transitional Government. The delegation met with a wide range of senior government officials, including the president, all of whom spoke frankly about their difficulties and their plans for increasing respect for human rights. Africa Watch was invited to submit a memorandum concerning the treatment of the detained members of the former regime and the procedures for bringing them to trial. Africa Watch was able to visit detainees in the Yekatit 66 prison, but not in police stations. It was also possible to talk with representatives of numerous political organizations and citizens' groups, including nascent human rights organizations.

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