Human Rights Watch has released a report on Ethiopia’s upcoming elections. The report joins other statements by international groups and media agencies highlighting and condemning political repression in Ethiopia. Let’s take a look at the report and then afterwards look at the broader context.
From HRW’s media release:
The Ethiopian government is waging a coordinated and sustained attack on political opponents, journalists, and rights activists ahead of the May 2010 elections, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. On May 23, 2010, Ethiopians will vote in the first parliamentary elections in Ethiopia since 2005, when the post-election period was marred by controversy and bloodshed.
The 59-page report, “‘One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure’: Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia,” documents the myriad ways in which the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has systematically punished opposition supporters. Since the 2005 polls, the party has used its near-total control of local and district administrations to undermine opponents’ livelihoods through withholding services such as agricultural inputs, micro-credit, and job opportunities. The report also documents how recently enacted laws severely restrict the activities of civil society and the media.
“Expressing dissent is very dangerous in Ethiopia,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The ruling party and the state are becoming one, and the government is using the full weight of its power to eliminate opposition and intimidate people into silence.”
As I noted above, this report echoes other complaints against the regime in Addis Ababa. VOA has protested the government’s decision to jam its radio broadcasts. And Ethiopian media groups such as the Ethiopian National Journalists’ Union feel that a new media code proposed by the National Election Board is unfair.
Given the problems outside observers perceive, The Economist writes that “the chances of a fair vote in the coming election are fast receding.” As they and other outlets note, HRW is calling upon foreign aid donors to condemn the actions of the Ethiopian regime. Flows of aid to Ethiopia’s government, some argue in the press, allow repression to continue without accountability.
The Ethiopian government’s reaction to HRW came swiftly, and with strong message discipline. In Nairobi, where HRW released the report,
the Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi denied the claims and accused the agency of being used to discredit the polls.
Mr Yelibu Lijalem, the media man at the embassy said the agency released a similar report two weeks before the 2005 elections. “The reports are being written deliberately to blackmail and tarnish Ethiopia’s human rights record.”
In Addis Ababa, officials commented as well:
Government officials said the claims were ridiculous and outrageous.
Spokesman Bereket Simon told the BBC that the report was aimed at tarnishing the image of the country.
Mr Bereket dismissed the claims and said people had a constitutional right to stage demonstrations.
And Prime Minister Meles Zenawi‘s views on these issues are also known:
Mr Zenawi says that groups such as Human Rights Watch interpret human rights too narrowly. The only way to guarantee Ethiopia a free future, he argues, is to keep it stable while it continues to develop. His political calculations are straightforward. He reckons, for instance, that reporting by the Voice of America does more harm inside the country than outside criticism of his censorship.
It is interesting to me how confidently Meles Zenawi and his government attack international rights groups, even to the point of criticizing the United States. Perhaps they feel secure that aid will continue to arrive, though events in May could put that theory to the test. Washington continues to prize its relationship with Ethiopia, but some are already hinting that the US partnership with Ethiopia is no longer worth the trouble it entails. Will massive bloodshed occur in May, and if so will it prompt donors to re-evaluate their aid?