Human Rights Developments

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the Ethiopian parliament in early July his government had successfully attained its three main objectives for the year: the recapturing of disputed territory in its war with Eritrea, holding general elections, and combatting drought. In pursuing these tasks, the government had more often than not ignored human rights and humanitarian standards despite its professed commitment to such standards.

Ethiopia on May 12 launched a massive attack against Eritrea and successfully retook disputed territories that Eritrea had occupied at the beginning of the war, while seriously weakening the military capacity of its former ally. The two countries on June 18 agreed to a cessation ofhostilities agreement brokered by the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The two-year conflict was estimated to have killed and wounded tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians and uprooted nearly a million people. Displaced Eritreans fleeing the fighting credibly reported the involvement of the Ethiopian army in large-scale destruction and looting of civilian property, the harassment of civilians, particularly men of military age, and in a high incidence of rape.

By early 2000, Ethiopian authorities, citing broad threats to national security, had forcibly expelled some 70,000 Ethiopians of Eritrean parentage to Eritrea. The government arbitrarily seized those of Eritrean descent, held them in harsh detention conditions and allowed no challenge to their expulsion. By summarily denying the nationality rights of the overwhelming majority of those expelled, most of whom were lifelong Ethiopian citizens, the campaign in effect rendered them stateless. It divided families, forcibly separating many from spouses and children whose Ethiopian nationality was not challenged, and expropriated their properties.

An estimated forty thousand Ethiopian residents of Eritrea returned to Ethiopia under duress in the months that followed the outbreak of hostilities. Eritrean authorities interned thousands of Ethiopian residents under harsh conditions in the wake of Ethiopia's offensive in May, citing unspecified threats to national security, and the need to protect the internees from angry mobs. By the end of June, in addition to the tens of thousands who had fled at the onset of the war, some 4,600 Ethiopian residents left Eritrea after their release from weeks of internment. Their repatriation occurred under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), acting as a mutually accepted neutral intermediary. Eritrea also repatriated several thousand Ethiopian residents without prior coordination with the ICRC and their government.

The war with Eritrea further fueled the ongoing low-level armed insurgencies in Ogaden region and in the state of Oromia. In these two and several other remote regions, the government continued to hold under harsh conditions, and without charge or trial, thousands of people it suspected of sympathizing with insurgents.

The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and the southern Sidama Liberation Front (SLF) in a joint May 16 statement charged that famine affecting their eastern and southern states was the result of "deliberate negligence" from the central government. The three fronts complained that the government forcibly recruited thousands of young men from their regions to use them as "mine sweepers" and "cannon fodder" in its war with Eritrea. Independent journalists and NGO workers who interviewed Ethiopian prisoners of war in Eritrea said many were under the age of eighteen, and reported testimonies that tended to corroborate charges of coercive recruitment and poor training.

The OLF blamed the government for ignoring a peace proposal it had tabled in February, and actively pursued in July and September the unification of several Oromo armed opposition groups under one umbrella to "increase the effectiveness of Oromo opposition to the government." There was no independent confirmation of claims by the OLF in August, and by the ONLF in September, that they had inflicted heavy casualties on government troops in separate clashes. The OLF claimed in early June that government soldiers arrested two hundred people in Malka Jabdu, a small village near the site at which a train ferrying military supplies from the port of Djibouti to the capital Addis Ababa was derailed in May by a landmine explosion for which the OLF claimed responsibility. Coming under government suspicion of active opposition to the war effort, many members of the Oromo community fled various forms of harassment and intimidation to seek asylum in neighboring Kenya and elsewhere.

Elections went ahead on May 14, two days after Ethiopia launched its largest military offensive against Eritrea since the beginning of the war. The government denied claims that the timing was meant to give an advantage to its ruling coalition, and said it needed no such assistance to win the elections. The government's assertion appeared well-founded in view of the level of control it exerted on the democratic transition to federalism. Independent opposition parties and coalitions of ethnically based groups opposed to the government continued to face severe government restrictions that limited their ability to freely compete in elections. The opposition to the EPRDF also suffered from internal organizational weaknesses and frequent divisions among its members, but several opposition parties and independent candidates competed in the May 2000 elections. Still, EPRDF affiliates were the sole contestants in over 50 percent of the constituencies in the contest for the lower house of parliament, eight of the nine regional councils, and the governments of the capital and the second largest city. The EPRDF scooped a predictable 85 percent of the seats in the federal legislature, and its members and satellite parties won control of the regional assemblies. On October 10, in its first sitting, the new parliament reelected Meles Zenawi prime minister for a five-year term.

Allegations of fraud and violence marred the May elections, particularly in rural areas. The independent monitoring group Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) reported election related incidents of abuse of opposition candidates and supporters, including killings, the arbitrary detention of opposition candidates and their transfer or dismissal from employment, and incidents involving the wounding of opposition supporters by gunshots. EHRCO also reported in February that Ethiopians of Eritrean descent who remained in the country could not participate in the May elections because authorities questioned their citizenship. In early March, Beyene Petros, chairman of the opposition Southern Ethiopian Peoples' Democratic Coalition (SEPDC), accused the ruling EPRDF of subjecting members of his party to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. After the polling started, Petros complained that police had killed seven SEPDC supporters who were protesting against electoral fraud outside two polling stations in the south. Responding to incidents of irregularities and violence, the election board nullified election results in sixteen districts in the southern region and organized fresh elections a month later.

The Ethiopian government continued to restrict the freedom of speech and the press. Twenty-seven Ethiopian journalists lived in exile at this writing, having fled their homeland due to repeated arrests and ill-treatment in detention. Among the latest to flee, in February, was Dawit Kebede, editor-in-chief of the Amharic weekly Fiameta, and member of the executive committee of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists' Association (EFPJA). The government only recognized EFPJA in March, seven years after the independent association first submitted its application for registration.

Eight reporters remained behind bars. Four had been in custody for up to two years before being sentenced to one year imprisonment, and they remained in custody on new charges. Tamrat Gemeda, of the weekly Seif Nebelball, and Tesfaye Deressa, Garuma Bekele, and Solomon Nemera, of Urji, were arrested in October 1997 for publishing "false information" for the prominence given by the two papers to Oromo issues and the conflict between the OLF and the government. The four faced new charges of membership in terrorist movements. The government held another thirty-one journalists on a short leash during 2000, having released them on very high bail pending court hearings.

In mid-August, sudden increases in printing costs, by more than a third, put additional pressures on some thirty-six private publications as well as the government press. The private newspapers went on strike from September 11-17, and warned that the high production costs could eventually force them out of print. They urged the government to reduce taxation on imported paper and other print inputs.

Defending Human Rights

The Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) openly monitored and reported on the human rights situation in the country. Several civic organizations, including EHRCO, the Ethiopian Economic Association, the Inter-Africa Group, and the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce convened panel discussions that allowed EPRDF and opposition candidates to air their programs before urban voters, mainly in the capital. The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association conducted training for women candidates. EHRCO critically analyzed the polling operations in its public statements and reports and denounced abuses when they occurred.

These freedoms continued to be denied to the Human Rights League, which was founded in 1997. Not only did the government refuse to register it, but it arrested eight of its board members shortly after they applied for registration and confiscated its office records and equipment in 1998. Garuma Bekele, executive secretary of the league, and also editor of Urji, and Addisu Beyene, secretary of the Oromo Relief Association and prominent rights advocate, together with some fifty other prominent Oromo civic leaders, remained in jail since their arrest in October 1997. Their trial for conspiracy with the OLF continued in camera. Family members were banned from attending the trial, although they could visit the prisoners. Fear of repression forced other groups, such as the Ogaden Human Rights Committee, to conduct their monitoring activities clandestinely, and to report their findings abroad.

There was some progress toward the establishment of national and international institutions for the protection and promotion of human rights. Days before the end of its five-year tenure, the outgoing parliament in July unanimously approved bills establishing the Ethiopian human rights commission and the office of the ombudsman. Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said during a visit in October that her agency would open a regional office in Addis Ababa to work with the countries of the Horn of Africa and the OAU.

The Role of the International Community

Organization of African Unity

The Organization of African Unity (OAU) took the lead in mediating the conflict from the onset, with the backing of the United States and the European Union. In its attempts to prevent yet another round of deadly fighting, the OAU convened intensive talks from April 29 to May 5 aimed at bringing the two parties to agree on a document for the implementation of its peace plan, Ethiopia having rejected earlier technical arrangements to this end. Despite the mediators' efforts, the talks again failed to resolve the core disagreements between the two parties. Ethiopia's major offensive of May 2000 was clearly meant to break the impasse. Not only did the offensive lead to Eritrea's withdrawal from all disputed border territories, but it placed Ethiopian troops in firm control of undisputed territories inside Eritrea. Ethiopia gained considerable leverage as a result of this military advantage and the pressures resulting from the flight of at least a million Eritrean civilians ahead of the fighting. The terms of the cessation of hostilities accord signed on June 18 thus appeared to reflect Ethiopia's position of strength.

The accord provided for the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force in a temporary security zone, twenty-five kilometers inside Eritrea along the entire border, a time frame for the neutral demarcation of the bitterly disputed borders, and the conclusion of a permanent cease-fire. The accord reaffirmed the two parties' acceptance of the OAU Framework Agreement and the Modalities for its Implementation as endorsed by the OAU summit in July 1999. The framework agreement provided a basis for addressing the human rights and humanitarian problems that the conflict had created, committing the two parties to "put an end to measures directed against the civilian population and to refrain from any action which can cause further hardship and suffering to each other's nationals." They also agreed to "addressing the negative socio-economic impact of the crisis on the civilian population, particularly those persons who had been deported." The OAU in collaboration with the U.N. was to deploy human rights monitors "in order to contribute to the establishment of a climate of confidence between the two parties" under the terms of the Framework Agreement.

Unfortunately, the terms of the cessation of hostilities agreement and the relevant U.N. Security Council regarding its implementation appeared to focus primarily on technical considerations, namely the redeployment of the two parties and the demarcation of the border. In contrast to its active role in the mediation process, the OAU proved itself far less assertive when it came to the definition of formal mediation and arbitration mechanisms to address the human rights and humanitarian consequences of the conflict.

United States

The U.S. continued to give a high priority to the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two of its closest allies in the continent. It engaged the two parties in direct talks, while providing vital technical and logistical support to the OAU mediation effort. Susan Rice, the assistant secretary of state for african affairs, devoted significant portions of her time to the conflict. Anthony Lake, the U.S. lead mediator since October 1998, and a former national security advisor, shuttled between the two capitals several times during the year, coordinating his efforts closely with the OAU and the U.N.

The administration maintained an active behind-the-scenes role in its efforts to prevent the resumption of the fighting, while refraining from making public statements, including addressing the human rights situation. The Department of State issued statements in March and May calling on the two nations to remain "fully engaged" in the OAU peace process, and on June 10 the U.S. expressed strong support for what was then still a proposal for the cessation of hostilities. Once the accord was signed, the U.S. pursued this active involvement in the peace process by hosting indirect talks between Ethiopian and Eritrean "technical experts" in early July 2000 during which the two sides discussed the substantive issues of border demarcation and compensation for the damages resulting from the war. Quiet diplomacy remained the rule, even after the U.S. sent Ambassador Richard Bogosian, Special Assistant to the Greater Horn, to the region to raise human rights and humanitarian issues with both parties.

Because their intensive involvement had failed to prevent the latest round of deadly fighting, the role of the U.S. policy makers came under harsh scrutiny. Critics faulted the Clinton administration for failing to apply direct pressures on the two parties as reflected in its reluctance to press earlier on for a U.N. arms embargo, or to use its influence to slow the flow of bilateral and multilateral financial aid to the two countries at a time when they were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on arms purchases. Administration officials defended themselves by arguing that an arms embargo would have led the belligerents to discontinue their participation in the peace talks, and that cutting the meager U.S. aid going to vital sectors in their economies would have only punished the neediest people in both countries.

The U.S. used its leverage only sparingly and as a last resort in its efforts to press for restraint. Ethiopia continued to benefit from the International Military Education and Training program, at a cost of U.S. $385,000 in FY 2000, with the only limitation being that the training could not be conducted in Ethiopia. By contrast, the U.S. froze the training of Ethiopian troops within the U.S.-led peacekeeping training program under the African Crisis Response Initiative. The U.S. development assistance to Ethiopia remained largely unaffected, at $40.8 million in development aid and child survival funds. Ethiopia was also the recipient of $14.8 million in non-food donations, and $330.4 million for food aid.

European Union

The E.U.'s position remained one of repeated condemnations of the major outbreaks of fighting, and sustained expressions of support for the OAU peace process. The E.U. gave a hint of why it had limited its involvement to this support role at the occasion of its appointment, on the eve of 2000, of a special envoy to the Horn of Africa, Italian Deputy Foreign Minister Rino Serri. This step, the E.U. said, was meant "to bolster the OAU effort and help the E.U. countries to come up with a better understanding and interpretation of the situation."

The African, Caribbean and Pacific and E.U. Joint Assembly (A.C.P.-E.U.) sent a parliamentary delegation led by the assembly's vice-president John Alexander Corrie to the Ethiopian and Eritrean capitals in mid-December 1999 to advocate for a negotiated settlement of the conflict under the OAU process, obviously to no avail. The ban on arms sales that the European Council of Ministers had imposed on Ethiopia and Eritrea in March 1999 remained effective.

The E.U. made substantial monetary and in-kind donations for the relief of civilians affected by drought and the conflict in both countries. These donations, together with aid provided bilaterally by E.U. member states, placed the E.U. as the top donor of food aid to Ethiopia, a position it has continually occupied in the past twenty-five years. However, the conflict led to significant reductions in the E.U.'s development cooperation with the two countries. The European Commission declared on May 19, 2000, that as a result of the tightening of conditions for the disbursement of credits of the Structural Adjustment Support Programs that it financed, the latter had not disbursed any budgetary support to Ethiopia since January 1999. An aide official told leaders of both nations during a trip to the region in early October that the E.U. was ready to reestablish cooperation with them if they consolidated their peace settlement. The E.U. had suspended its economic cooperation with them after they went to war.

United Nations

The U.N. Security Council fully backed the OAU peace process. Responding to a transient but ominous flare-up in the fighting, members of the Security Council on March 14 called on Eritrea and Ethiopia to cooperate "fully and urgently" with the OAU and to participate constructively in its efforts to settle the dispute between them. With clear signals in early May that fighting was about to resume, the Security Council extended the itinerary of its special mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to include Addis Ababa and Asmara. The mission found the differences between the two sides, "while real, were relatively small and manageable and could be resolved by intensive negotiations over time." Days after it left the region, fighting resumed with rare intensity over these differences. In reaction, the Security Council in its unanimous resolution 1298 of May 17, which the U.S. sponsored, finally imposed a formal embargo on arms sales to the two parties for a year. The belated U.N. embargo was destined to have little effect in the short and medium runs, coming as it did after both countries had amassed huge stocks of arms and munitions. A timid call by the council in February 1999 to member states to immediately end all arms sales to both sides obviously had failed to achieve the desired results.

In early July, the U.N. secretary-general dispatched an advance team to the region to pave the way for the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping mission. Based on the recommendations of the team, the Security Council on July 31 decided to establish a U.N. Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) of up to one hundred military observers and support staff in anticipation of a larger mission. The council authorized 4,200 troops for UNMEE in mid-September, and said member states were cooperating in offering troops and resources for the mission. By late September, some forty military observers were taking positions along both sides of the disputed border, and another group of military observers was to be dispatched to the mission area by mid-October.

In a remarkable omission, the advance team dispatched by the U.N. to prepare for UNMEE did not include a representative of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, and the resulting mission structure had no human rights component, although a component was provided for in resolution 1320 (2000), which established the mission. The persistence of reports of wide-scale human rights abuses by both parties, even after the cessation of hostilities, appeared to have led the U.N. secretary-general to announce, on September 18, that he intended to establish a "small" component within UNMEE to follow human rights issues.

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

This 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.