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Humanity before Ethnicity

Mr. Obang’s statement to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioners for Human Rights, at the 102nd session of the Human Rights Committee in Geneva
Human Rights Violations, Pseudo-Institutions and the Pursuit of Economic Interest

July 11, 2011
Mr. Chairman,
Thank you for this opportunity to participate in the 102nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s review of the state of human rights in Ethiopia. I am here as part of an international coalition of human rights advocates who are representing the people of Ethiopia; many of whom are in serious jeopardy due to the ongoing and widespread human rights violations committed with impunity by members of the one-party regime of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), under the 20-year leadership of Meles Zenawi. 

Despite EPRDF’s many public declarations of commitment to the respect of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and sustainable development, Ethiopians are at greater risk today than ever before; not only due to the regime’s serial perpetration of acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other human rights atrocities; but because the EPRDF has purged the country of most independent institutions of Ethiopian civil society, monopolized institutions of power within the country and pursued the acquisition of economic resources at the expense of the vast majority of impoverished people.No wonder why Ethiopia perpetually remains at the bottom of most every index of well being even while the regime boasts of its economic growth.

Mr. Chairman,
Over the last several years we have seen the demise of most every Ethiopian institution that had been functioning as watchdogs of society. Today, in their place, stand EPRDF-controlled pseudo-institutions, publically operating as if they represented the people; but in fact, acting as politicized tools in the hands of the EPRDF. Most of the independent voices of the past are now in exile or have been silenced within the country. The organizations they represented are either dissolved or have been taken over by the EPRDF. 

As recently as 2004, the most esteemed human rights organization in the country, the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), was still functioning. Following the December 2003 massacre of 424 Anuak leaders in the Gambella region of southwestern Ethiopia, members of my own ethnic group, EHRCO’s president, Professor Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, had called a press conference in Addis Ababa in January to give a public report on the ethnic-based killings.

In March of 2004, when I first appeared before the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva to formally present the case, the United Nations news media, IRIN, had already reported on it in response to EHRCO’s press conference. As you may note from the following comments made in that report, EHRCO was not timid, but strongly attributed responsibility for the killings to Ethiopian National Defense Forces.  Professor Mesfin was quoted as saying:  "What happened in Gambella was verging on genocide," he [Mesfin] said. Mesfin went on to say that in the run-up to the attack, 5,000 Anuaks had sought refuge in one of the town's churches, because soldiers had blocked the roads leading out of the town. "The mob, in collaboration with members of the [government] defence forces, continued to attack those who could not find anywhere to hide. Many were killed or sustained severe and light injures," added Mesfin, who has been the president of ERCHO for eight years. He asserted that the country’s "ethnic policy" was fuelling conflict.”

Today, EHRCO, who received over 10% of its budget from foreign sources, has become a casualty to the Charities and Societies Proclamation. Instead, the EPRDF has created its own institutional look-alike organization, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, (EHRC); which even has a similar name. A government-sponsored website, Walta, recently posted an announcement regarding the opening of six regional human rights offices in Ethiopia; including in Gambella and revealed plans to open seven more in the future. According to Berhanu Abadi, communication information directorate director at EHRC, this step would put them closer to the people, especially the disadvantaged. He reported that the agency, established five years ago, had been focusing on increasing public awareness of human rights and democracy. (WIC, July 2, 2011)

Mr. Chairman,
Following the human rights violations in the Gambella region that continued for the next two years, multiple human rights investigations were completed by independent foreign-based groups such as Genocide Watch, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International; however, these groups are no longer allowed to conduct such investigations and have been warned of potential arrest, like what has happened with the two Swedish journalists allegedly attempting to do the same in the Ogaden region. 

Genocide Watch had determined that the ethnic targeting of the Anuak had met the definition of genocide and crimes against humanity; finding evidence of EPRDF complicity. The case has been referred to the International Criminal Court and to the High Commissioner of Human Rights for possible investigation of a pattern of perpetration by the current government.

Human Rights Watch completed investigations regarding the Anuak, the Oromo, the killing of 193  protestors of the 2005 Ethiopian National Election, the Ogaden and the politicization of humanitarian aid in the 2010 election. They documented crimes against humanity, war crimes and misuse of foreign aid. Recent U.S. State Department’s reports on human rights in Ethiopia also documented substantial violations. The Ethiopian government denied all allegations and has failed to hold perpetrators accountable. On the other hand, they have accused those who have spoken out of terrorism. How credible will their own Ethiopian Human Rights Committee be in comparison? 

Mr. Chairman,
Right now, no organization can operate independently in Ethiopia without fear of repercussions. Instead, information must come from Ethiopians in the Diaspora who are in close communication with family and community members on the ground. Because of this, those interested in supporting the advancement of human rights, democracy and poverty eradication in Ethiopia should not make the mistake of funding these pseudo-institutions—even though they are the only ones operating in the country—for they do not represent the interests of the people. Instead, support should be given to Diaspora groups who are now the only ones left to tell the truth about what is going on.

Preventing the flow of information from coming in or going out of the country is a primary focus of this regime; particularly where that information would be damaging to the false public persona of this regime.  For example, the Ogaden region has been blocked off from entry to outsiders; particularly human rights groups, humanitarian groups and journalists. The Meles regime claims it is too dangerous, but reports that have emerged show desperate conditions for the people and horrific human rights atrocities and destruction of livelihoods by the ENDF. Yet, the ENDF left their trail of brutal killings, widespread rape and destruction of homes, crops, wells, schools, health clinics and granaries as they reaped havoc against the Anuak in Gambella before many of the same troops were moved to the Ogaden region and into Somalia in late 2005, where they have remained ever since.  Investigative reports that have emerged despite the block have revealed the perpetration of the same kinds of crimes against humanity as had been committed in Gambella. Now the Meles government is spending $100 million (USD) on 200 tanks! Who will these weapons be used against?  

Similarly, in both cases, these targeted ethnic-based attacks can be linked to resources on their indigenous land. In the case of Gambella, it can be linked to the start of the drilling for oil and in the Ogaden, to natural gas. Similar connections can be made between the government-supported perpetration of human rights violations against a people group and the exploitation of natural resources on their land—such as potash, fertile agricultural land, water sources or gold—in the regions of Afar, Oromia, Amhara, Southern Nations, Benishangul and Gambella.

Mr. Chairman,
Most of the southern regions of Ethiopia and into Somalia and Kenya, are now facing one of the most severe droughts in sixty years. Millions of people are at risk as acute hunger and thirst have created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. We cannot simply call it climate change or we will ignore the elephant in the room that must be acknowledged and that is the Meles regime’s contribution to this disaster.

Without question, stronger agricultural supports and better planning over the past years could have reduced the depth and breadth of the impact; however, far more reprehensible is the regime’s complicity in the destruction of life and livelihoods in the Ogaden region and into Somalia where the Meles-controlled Ethiopian National Defense Forces should be held responsible for the widespread perpetration of crimes against humanity, war crimes, destruction homes, wells, livestock and all that sustains life. At the same time, the regime has blocked access to the Ogaden region by humanitarian groups for the last several years.

Recently, Swedish journalists attempting to report on the area were arrested. Reports speak of 1,000 Somalis fleeing to Ethiopian refugee camps everyday but not of Ethiopian Somalis from the Ogaden. Can they even leave for help? When the world finally sees inside, what will we see and will we be too late? Will we find a genocide by hunger? If Al-Shabab is opening up their controlled regions to humanitarian groups why is Meles Zenawi not doing the same?

This regime has denied the magnitude of what has been called the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world by calling indigenous resistance, terrorists and acting against them without holding back. As the Meles regime seeks to pursue its own economic interests from exploiting the vast reserves of natural gas in the region, armed resistance has risen up. Such resistance is then immediately countered by the Meles-controlled ENDF; who have benefited from labeling the insurgency as a terrorist group; even while committing its own acts of terrorism against civilians of the Ogaden and into Somalia. 

Mr. Chairman,
Strong institutions that could confront such acts are a threat; yet, the Meles regime has benefited by associating with free countries who value such institutions. As a result, the EPRDF is adamantly claiming the existence of strong institutions; using all of the supporting rhetoric, but what they will not say is that the EPRDF created these same institutions as a means to avoid transparency and accountability. Now, they are appointed by themselves to investigate themselves. Those results are then presented in the international community as a means to gain further support; both political and financial; however, to do this most effectively they had to eliminate any other groups that might challenge their position.  

Consider independent groups like the Ethiopian Press Association; the head of the organization is now in exile. The same is true of the Ethiopian Teachers Association and the Ethiopian Union and Trade Association. The Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers and the Ethiopian Bar Association have been blocked from accomplishing their missions. Few, if any, independent organizations remain, but many have been replaced with EPRDF duplicates.

Mr. Chairman,
The passage of the Charities and Societies Proclamation was the final nail in the coffin of civic organizations. Yet, most every private, civic and political institution has a regime replica under its control which helps to shore up its business empire and cover up any human rights atrocities. This includes the media, the judicial system, election board, election monitors, investment agencies, banks, land management, environmental protection, commodity exchanges, corruption commission and educational institutions. 

EPRDF control of these institutions creates the environment necessary to sustain their political power while financially benefiting from exploiting any economic resources within the country; including making secretive deals with foreign and crony investors where someone in the chain of command would benefit. 

For example, the business conglomerate, EFFORT, is headed up by Meles Zenawi’s wife, Azeb Mesfin. EFFORT businesses dominate the entire economic sector of the country. Additionally, acquiring land and resource rights is not a problem as the regime controls all land use and prohibits any private land ownership. As a result, the regime can justify the confiscation of the land and of any of its citizens and their subsequent displacement from their ancestral land by calling it “development” meant to help the people; yet the people are left out of all aspects of decision making and inclusion in the benefits. 

Mr. Chairman,
Now, because of a pseudo-human rights organization, If the people complain, the groups like Human Rights Watch or the independently run EHRCO are no longer tolerated. Instead, the people now have the EPRDF’s own Ethiopian Human Rights Committee offices throughout the country where the voices of the people will be fully sanitized before ever coming into public view.

In conclusion, as long as the Meles regime controls all the institutions, land and the armed security forces; and as long as it pleases the international community with these look-alike institutions—enough to gain diplomatic cover and foreign aid—few will hear the voices of the disadvantaged as they protest the merciless pillaging of their lives, country and futures by a mafia-style government; heatedly pursuing its own economic interests with force and impunity. 

Mr. Chairman,
This is a tragic account of how the pursuit of economic interests in Ethiopia by the EPRDF regime of Meles Zenawi is held in place through the creation of pseudo-institutions and the continued perpetration of human rights violations against the people as the regime seeks the total confiscation of Ethiopia!

As part of the membership of this international coalition for the advancement of human rights in Ethiopia, together we urgently call on the Human Rights Committee to take the strongest measures possible to hold this regime accountable for its crimes so that Ethiopia may be returned to the people!

Thank you!


Mr. Obang Metho, Executive Director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), a non-violent, non-political, grassroots social justice movement of diverse Ethiopians; committed to defending the rights of Ethiopians both in the Diaspora and within Ethiopia and bringing truth, justice, freedom, equality, reconciliation, accountability and respect for human and civil rights to the people of Ethiopia and beyond.

For more information, please contact Obang at: Obang@solidaritymovement.org

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