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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Ethiopia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - Ethiopia, 11 March 2008, available at: [accessed 20 November 2017]
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.

Since a new constitution was established in 1995 following the overthrow of the oppressive Derg regime, the country has followed a unique system of ethnically based federalism. But the question of whether this structure actually helps minorities realize their rights, or whether it has been subverted by the present government to consolidate its hold on power, is now of urgent concern to minority rights activists.

The crackdown against opponents of the regime following the elections in 2005, the 2006 invasion of Somalia and its subsequent fall-out, as well as the 2007 heavy-handed security action in the Ogaden, have set the scene for an increasingly repressive and intolerant atmosphere.

Two major assessments of the Ethiopian government's recent record came in 2007 – one from the UN committee which monitors the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the other from the UN's Independent Expert on Minority Issues.

CERD's report – issued without the cooperation of the Ethiopian government – gave an extremely critical assessment of the country's record, noting that, among other things, it was 'alarmed' at information that military and police forces have been 'systematically targeting' certain ethnic groups, such as the Anuak and the Oromo.

It had – it said – received information about 'summary executions, rape of women and girls, arbitrary detention, torture, humiliations and destruction of property and crops of members of those communities'.

Other concerns expressed by CERD included the lack of information on minority representation in local and national government, in the judiciary and security services, and the establishment of national parks without the participation or informed consent of the indigenous peoples.

The latter point followed criticism of the transfer of the Omo National Park in south-west Ethiopia, from government to private control. Indigenous peoples' organizations – including Survival International – complained that the deal had gone through without prior consultation with the pastoralist tribes in the area, and that the government had obtained 'consent' of the communities to the boundary demarcation of the park by asking them to sign documents with a thumb-print.

In February 2007, the Independent Expert on Minority Issues, Gay McDougall, published her report on Ethiopia, following a country visit. Among her findings were that some smaller minority communities were considered to be on the verge of disappearing, due to 'factors including resettlement, displacement, conflict, assimilation, cultural dilution, environmental factors and loss of land'. She noted that, 'An unknown number of minority communities are believed to have already disappeared completely.'

While praising certain aspects of government policy – such as the re-establishment of local languages in schools and local administrations – she also found much that was of concern. She reported a perception that the political system was biased in favour of ethnic parties created by the ruling faction, rather than genuinely representative movements.

In a visit to the Gambella, where an estimated 424 people were killed by Ethiopian security forces and other groups in 2003, McDougall found many Anuak still being held in prison without trial. She also highlighted the case of the Karayu pastoralists, who had been displaced from their traditional land and water sources in Oromia because of the establishment of a national park, and industries, in the area.

Among her key recommendations were that the government take steps to depoliticize ethnicity, and promote the policy of inclusion, and that urgent steps be taken to protect the existence of some small minority groups. Moreover, she also called for an inclusive national conference to examine the federalist system.

The Independent Expert's report was roundly rejected by the Ethiopian government in its response to the Human Rights Commission, which said it was 'littered with information based on hearsay and unfounded allegations'. Meanwhile, the unfolding crisis in the southern Ogaden region left the impression that the Independent Expert's recommendations for political inclusiveness had gone unheeded.

In September 2007, a public plea by the international aid agencies, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Médicins sans Frontières, galvanized world attention on the security crackdown in the desert Ogaden region. Bordering Somalia in the south-east, the biggest group in the region is ethnic Somali.

In April 2007, a sputtering rebellion by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) flared into life again. Rebels attacked an oil installation killing 74, including some Chinese workers. Security forces responded by blockading areas suspected to be rebel strongholds, denying international aid agencies access to supply humanitarian relief.

Food prices soared, livestock prices halved. Many people were forced to flee their homes – amid witness testimony that the government was burning villages. Worryingly, the Ethiopian army was said to be targeting certain sub-clans as supporters of the ONLF, and to be acting against them indiscriminately. As a result, hundreds of thousands were left dependent on food aid. There were also reports of abuses by ONLF – including punishments for civilians who failed to provide food or shelter.

The crisis in the Ogaden is intrinsically linked in to the wider upheaval in the Horn of Africa region, the epicentre of which is Somalia. Although the existence of the ONLF precedes the emergence of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in Somalia, strategic links between the ONLF and the ICU have been reported, while the Ethiopian government's bitter foe – the government of Isaias Afewerki in Eritrea – is widely believed to be actively supporting the ONLF.

Nevertheless, the Horn of Africa Group based at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, said the government's response was disproportionate and counter-productive. Its report, Conflict in the Ogaden and its Regional Dimensions (September 2007) concluded: 'Ethiopian action is leading to a revival of Somali national sentiment and a sense of common destiny that cuts across the clan divide.'

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