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Repatriation Forum

Human Rights Developments

Human Rights Developments

Defending Human Rights

The Role of the International Community

Human rights conditions in Ethiopia did not perceptibly improve in 2002. In southern Ethiopia they significantly worsened: Police shot into groups of civilians and conducted mass arrests. Arbitrary arrests, however, were not confined to the south. Those who were arrested were subjected to prison conditions that did not meet international standards and some prisoners, particularly in Oromiya regional state, were tortured. Courts rarely intervened to stop human rights abuses, parliament not at all. The print media was allowed to publish but was frequently harassed. The ruling coalition Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) led by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi maintained a firm grip over the federal and state governments. Local elections were subject to intimidation and fraud. The EPRDF also continued to exert control over the judiciary.

Police also shot at crowds of unarmed students in March and April in Oromiya, Ethiopia's most populous state. State officials acknowledged that five high school students were killed and over a dozen wounded when police shot into groups protesting government educational and economic policies. The state parliament justified the police tactics by asserting that the police had no funds to purchase non-lethal crowd control equipment.

In June, over three hundred people were incarcerated in Dembi Dolo, including some seventy school children. Some of those detained there and in Ambo town, about 130 kilometers west of Addis Ababa (the capital), were tortured.The government failed to bring police accused of killing civilians to justice in the above-mentioned incidents, or similar previous incidents, including the killing of forty students during a strike at Addis Ababa University in April 2001. Human rights violations continued to be particularly egregious in Oromiya. Since the government banned the OLF a decade before, thousands of alleged OLF members or sympathizers had been arrested, and this trend continued in 2002. (Oromos constitute the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia, some 40 percent of the population.) As of March more than 1,700 such prisoners were reportedly held at the Ghimbi central prison, half of them arrested recently and the rest having been there for five to ten years, some without charge. Hundreds more were detained in prisons and police jails across Oromiya state. Prisoners who were released or escaped from incarceration reported severe torture while imprisoned. The Oromiya state minister for capacity building, who fled the country in May, denounced the state government for indiscriminately accusing the Oromo people of supporting the OLF.

The Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), the most prominent human rights group, issued a number of reports on human rights violations in 2002, including on the shootings and arrests in Tepi, Awassa, and Oromiya; on forced roundups of street children who were then dumped in a remote forest. Ethiopia's international standing grew during the year as its strategic location, bordering Sudan and Somalia, made it a "frontline state" in the U.S.-led "war against terrorism." The U.S. provided substantial military assistance to Ethiopia within this context. Yet the U.S. failed to press for accountability of Ethiopian security forces accused of human rights violations, including the shooting of civilian protestors. A senior state department official claimed that the U.S. wielded virtually no leverage over Ethiopia because it was dependent on the country's assistance in rooting out al-Qaeda. U.S. economic and humanitarian assistance amounted to about U.S.$170 million, one third of which represented funds for education, health, and governance, and the remainder food and emergency aid.

The E.U. issued a statement in June condemning the violence in Tepi and Awassa and demanding an inquiry into these events. The E.U. declined to provide police assistance to the Ethiopian government to improve its ability to manage disturbances with less than lethal force because it could not guarantee Ethiopia would use such assistance responsibly (in the past, Ethiopia has misused assistance provided to the police actually to commit human rights violations.

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