Ethiopian flagThe Ethiopian government has published this reply to my article and – in fairness – I am posting it here unabridged.

Source: Ethiopian Foreign Ministry


Growth and development are the reality of the Somali Regional State not “silence and pain”

Martin Plaut’s recent article “Silence and pain: Ethiopia’s human rights record in the Ogaden”  deserves comment not just for its inaccuracies but also because it is highly misleading in terms of omission and in its extensive use of controversial sources, some of which, besides being seriously outdated, have also been the subject of detailed corrections which Mr. Plaut carefully ignores.

Serious omissions creep in at the outset. It is true that the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) took up arms in 1995 but it is certainly relevant to note that the organization ran the government of the Somali Regional State between 1992 and 1995 before splitting over whether the time was ripe to try to hold a referendum over self-determination as allowed under the Ethiopian constitution. Well over half the organization disagreed with its Chairman and a majority refused to follow him when he called for an armed struggle rather than continue to operate within Ethiopia and the Somali Regional State’s political process. That majority remained part of the political process within the Somali Regional State and later joining with other Somali political parties to form the Somali Peoples Democratic Party, currently the ruling party in the region.

Well before 1995, it was very clear that a very substantial majority of the population of the regional state and all the other parties in the state were opposed to the ONLF, which was then, as now, a minority organization. Most of the Ogaden clans have always been opposed to the ONLF, many very strongly so, not least because of the way the ONLF has operated, consistently carrying out assassinations, terrorizing its opponents and critics and attacking civilians. The Ogaden clans, incidentally, make up no more than a third of the Somali region’s population, though they inhabit up to a half of the land. None of the other clans in the region have ever been prepared to accept the idea of being ruled by the Ogaden in an Ogadeni state, something on which the ONLF has always tried to insist.

Martin Plaut talks about “dark, dirty secrets”, “far from prying international eyes,” alleging “a terrible silence has descended over the Ogaden” and claiming that the Ethiopian authorities have sealed off the region to international journalists. No, they haven’t. If Martin Plaut had done his research properly he would know that there were international journalists reporting from the region only a few months ago. There have been reports in the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, and Time World and other outlets. These have painted a very different picture of the situation in the region and of the developments there. Aid organizations operate freely as do a number of NGOs, and there are no problems in entering the region though some areas are subject to security constraints because of ONLF terrorist activity.

It is true that two Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, were arrested in the region in July 2011, but they were not arrested for entering the region. They were detained because they had illegally crossed the border and, more importantly, were accompanying a group of armed ONLF fighters on a terrorist mission, as they subsequently admitted. That was why they were given what were certainly heavy jail sentences. In the circumstances they were lucky to receive pardons a little over a year later.

Martin Plaut does, quite rightly, make the point that since 2008 there have been only a few reliable reports published on the region. He might have added that the report he quotes from most extensively, and his main source, a report by Human Rights Watch on the Ogaden in June 2008, even though hardly up-to-date, is also one of the most unreliable and indeed suffers from most of the same omissions and inaccuracies of Mr. Plaut. It almost completely fails to provide chapter and verse of the numerous atrocities it claimed to have taken place. These included allegations the Ethiopian Defense Forces had carried out a “brutal counter-insurgency” campaign, involving a systematic campaign of forced relocation, and burning of villages, arbitrary killings, mass detentions, torture, rape and assault, livestock confiscations and killings and restrictions on civilian movements, amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The report, in June 2008, concerned the government sufficiently for it to commission an independent report later in the year to investigate HRW’s allegations. A team spent some weeks touring the region, visiting almost all the places to which HRW referred, and investigated as many of the claims as possible. That report found major problems with HRW’s report and its approach. The team talked to specific people that HRW claimed had been tortured to death, alive and well; many of the names of people allegedly killed proved simply fictitious; villages that HRW claimed had been burnt were untouched, and populations that had allegedly been forcibly relocated were still in place. The independent investigation on the ground found no evidence to support allegations of systematic war crimes or crimes against humanity; though it did find evidence of a few cases of abuse, and one of torture – the officer responsible was court-martialed. It was also able to clarify the reality of claims of political manipulation of food distribution, of border closures, and of “economic war.

The inquiry also highlighted major flaws in HRW’s methodology, including almost exclusive use of anonymous telephone interviews with external sources outside Ethiopia or even the region, a total failure to enquire into the political affiliation or interest of informants, a lack of any attempt at assessment of ONLF terrorist activities, a total failure to carry out any investigations on the ground visit regional prisons or talk to alternative sources. HRW even claimed that satellite imagery could prove responsibility for burnt villages!

Mr. Plaut quotes HRW as saying “Ethiopian security forces have committed serious violations of international humanitarian law in at least three separate armed conflict situations over the past decade: in the Somali Region in 2007, in Somalia between 2006 and 2008, and in Gambella in 2003 and 2004.”  They haven’t. HRW and other sources among armed opposition movements, many based in Eritrea, and their supporters in the Diaspora, merely claim they have, and that is a very different matter. The Ethiopian government has indeed dismissed many of these allegations of human rights abuses as unreliable or politically motivated. There is good reason for this. Many of them are indeed unreliable, politically motivated and do not stand up to investigation. Almost none of HRW’s allegations, for example, have been sufficiently detailed to allow for any investigation. Where investigations have been carried out, the allegations have been almost always found to be false, but HRW repeatedly dismisses any findings that disagree with their “findings’ as “unreliable” and “non-credible”. In fact, when the independent 2008 inquiry into events in the Ogaden failed to find evidence for most of the claims made by HRW, HRW immediately accused it of failing “to meet basic standards of credibility”.

It is also difficult to accept Mr. Plaut’s claims of human rights abuse concerning events at the end of last year and in January this year. Apparently quoting from someone who was said to be in Liyu police in June 2012, he gives what he calls eight examples of abuse in the last few weeks. In fact, five are no more than notice of arrest, though in one case this is qualified as ‘unlawful’ without explanation. It is difficult to see why these classify as abuse. In three cases, certainly, the allegations concern claims of theft and a killing. They are, most unusually, possibly specific enough in time and place for investigation. This is particularly unusual and may therefore be investigated. In fact Ethiopia has never refused to investigate human rights abuses, whether committed by security forces or anyone else, if reliable evidence has been produced of such activity with sufficient detail to allow investigations to be made. HRW and others almost routinely fail to do so.

Mr. Plaut goes on to extract other allegations from HRW reports, again without bothering to note that these have been widely criticized for exaggeration. Neither the independent media nor civil society organizations have been “decimated” by the Charities and Societies Proclamation, the Press Law or the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, though the CSP has certainly brought some much needed and welcome structural organization and control into the administration of CSOs, whose numbers, it might be noted, have increased. The main critics of this legislation have been organizations that were unprepared to allow the government to audit their books on an annual basis! There has been no decline in the operation of the free press, and to suggest otherwise indicates a failure to read current press publications in Ethiopia. It is simply untrue to say that “over the past five years most legitimate political avenues for peaceful protest have been shut down and opposition leaders, civil society activists, and independent journalists have been jailed or forced to flee”, though certainly some of those involved in illegitimate activities, including terrorist activities, have been arrested, tried and in some cases sentenced.

A couple of other points: the ONLF has made much in the last week or two of what it calls the “mysterious disappearance of two senior ONLF negotiators from Nairobi.” In fact, there is nothing mysterious about their leaving Nairobi. They decided to return to the Somali Regional State and are now in Jigjiga. They were not kidnapped or in any sense constrained; they had merely decided to abandon the ONLF, something that they feared might lead to attempts to assassinate them as a number of others have been killed when trying to do the same thing. They are not alone in leaving the ONLF. Many in the Diaspora have done exactly that particularly in the last year or two as officials from the Somali regional State have toured Somali Diaspora populations in Europe and America, giving account of developments in the region and the progress made. A large element of the ONLF, including over half of its central committee at the time, gave up armed struggle in 2011 and negotiated a settlement, as did another Ogadeni organization, the United Somali Western Liberation Front, the previous year.

Secondly, with reference to all the abuses that are continually alleged to take place throughout the Somali region, it might be noted that all the people in the region carry mobile phones, most with photo capacity. The Somali speaking areas of Eastern Africa have one of the most efficient and cheapest series of mobile phone networks in the world. Yet, oddly, no specific evidence has been produced of these hundreds of supposed atrocities; none of the alleged prisons, the burning villages, the public killings and other apparent abuses have been photographed. One has to ask why not?