Testimony of Saman Zarifi, Human Rights Watch’s Washington Advocate
On October 3, 2007, before
House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on
“The Human Rights and
Humanitarian Situation in the Horn of Africa: The Cases of
Thank you Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, for providing Human Rights Watch this opportunity to voice our concerns about the dire, and deteriorating, human rights and humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa, and particularly in regard to Somalia and the Somali region of Ethiopia.
We are at a critical moment for the Horn of Africa and its people. Over the
past year we have seen an already volatile region become even more violent and
unstable, with hundreds of thousands of civilians suffering massive crimes.
There has been little or no response from important voices in the international
community, including the
These crimes are not only a serious issue from a human rights perspective, they need to be understood as part of a deepening political and security crisis across the Horn of Africa. The situation in the Horn today is complex, but what is clear is that if we are to avert a deepening regional crisis we must see an urgent and radical change of policy by some of the key regional actors—and their international supporters—in order to address the current dynamic of increasing violence, instability, and human suffering.
Human Rights Watch has been closely monitoring events in
Mr. Chairman, there are no clean hands among the hostile parties in these
two conflicts. Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses of civilians in
the Ogaden, including summary executions, by the forces of the rebel Ogaden
National Liberation Front. We have published an in-depth investigation that
describes a variety of crimes by insurgent groups in
However today Human Rights Watch would like to focus on the conduct of the Ethiopian military, not only because the Ethiopian government’s military forces have systematically committed atrocities and violated the basic laws of war, but because Ethiopia is a key ally and partner of the United States in the Horn of Africa.
The crimes committed by Ethiopian forces in the Ogaden and
We recognize that
In the Ogaden, we have documented massive crimes by the Ethiopian army, including civilians targeted intentionally; villages burned to the ground as part of a campaign of collective punishment; public executions meant to terrify onlooking villagers; rampant sexual violence used as a tool of warfare; thousands of arbitrary arrests and widespread and sometimes deadly torture and beatings in military custody; a humanitarian and trade blockade on the entire conflict area; and hundreds of thousands of people forced away from their homes and driven to hunger and malnutrition.
The Ogaden is not
Unlike in Darfur, however, the state that is perpetrating abuses against its
people in Ogaden is a key
A crucial first step would be for the
The Conflict in the Somali Region
In June, the Ethiopian government (the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, or
ENDF) launched a major military campaign in the Ogaden, part of
The counter insurgency operation was aimed at eliminating
the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a rebel group that has been fighting
for years for self-determination. The
ongoing Ethiopian military campaign was triggered by several recent
high-profile ONLF attacks in the region, including the April attack on an oil
installation operated by Chinese personnel at Obole and attacks in May in
Dhagahbur and Jigjiga, the regional capital, which nearly killed the Regional
State President, Abdullahi Hassan. Although the Ethiopian government has
frequently called for the ONLF to be placed on terrorism lists, the ONLF is widely
viewed as a secular nationalist group; indeed, prior to
The current campaign in Somali region is also linked to Ethiopian military
operations in south-central
Abuses by Ethiopian Forces in Ethiopia’s Somali Region
In July, Human Rights Watch warned of serious violations occurring in the
Somali region of
Mr. Chairman, notwithstanding these statements, our ongoing investigation has only deepened our concern. Our investigators on the ground have been able to substantiate many killings by the Ethiopian forces; the burning of villages; widespread sexual violence; the arbitrary detention and torture of thousands in military custody; denial of access to wells; confiscation of livestock and hostage-taking to compel families to turn in family members suspected of ONLF involvement.. This is the situation we are finding:
In less than three months,
Human Rights Watch has learned that hundreds of civilians have been killed in what appears to be a deliberate effort to mete out collective punishment against a civilian population suspected of sympathizing with the rebels. Overall, the killings probably number in the hundreds since the beginning of 2007, with a sharp escalation following the attack on the Chinese oil installation—and they continue to date. Many of the killings have been demonstration killings: the Ethiopian army gathers all of the local population, and then selects a few people suspected of having ties to the ONLF, and then kill them in front of the crowd by either shooting or strangling them.
Sexual and gender-based violence is widespread, and seems to be openly countenanced by the ENDF. We have spoken to several rape victims who were gang-raped to the point of unconsciousness by Ethiopian soldiers who took them from their homes and raped them either at their army bases --suggesting that the army allows such abuses--or in the bush. Some of the girls were killed after the rapes, and a few suffered such serious injuries and infections that they later died.
Ethiopian troops are destroying villages and property, confiscating livestock and forcing civilians to relocate to urban centers, in an apparent attempt to separate the civilian population from the ONLF rebels operating in remote rural areas. Villagers are threatened if they refuse to relocate.
Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that Ethiopian troops burned or ordered civilians to vacate at least a dozen villages around the towns of Dhagahbur, Qabridahare and Wardheer. In Wardheer zone, many of the residents of villages located within a 100-kilometer radius of Wardheer town were forced to relocate to other towns because of attacks on their villages, orders from the Ethiopian military or – less frequently – fighting between the Ethiopian army and the ONLF.
Witnesses described Ethiopian troops burning homes and property, including the recent harvest and other food stocks intended for the civilian population, confiscating livestock, killing herders in unauthorized areas, and, in a few cases, firing upon and killing fleeing civilians. Ethiopian security forces are also responsible for arbitrary detentions and torture of thousands, detaining students, shopkeepers, and relatives of suspected ONLF members.
Ethiopian troops have confiscated or destroyed livestock, thus jeopardizing the basic livelihood of the region’s large pastoralist population. A partial trade blockade has been imposed on the region leading to serious food shortages. Almost all commercial traffic from Somaliland and out of Ogaden, the main commercial route, has been prohibited, making it virtually impossible for foodstuffs to reach the area; traffic between village and towns has been severely restricted and has become very dangerous; nomadic livestock herders have been prohibited from freely grazing their camels and other livestock and are often killed if encountered by the army; even access to water holes has been restricted or prohibited. The main purpose of these restrictions seems to be an attempt to prevent any foodstuffs from reaching the ONLF, but the restrictions are so severe that they may also be trying to force people to leave their homes.
Whatever the military strategy behind them, these abuses violate the laws of war.
International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, requires that all warring parties distinguish between military and civilians, protect civilians and their property and take all feasible steps to minimize the harm of military operations on civilians. Starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare is also a violation of international law.
Collective punishments – or the punishment of one or more individuals for the acts of others – is also prohibited by international humanitarian law. Hostage taking, which is the holding or use of a person to compel a third party to act or refrain from acting, is also prohibited. Detaining the family member of a combatant to compel the combatant to surrender would thus be unlawful.
While the Ogaden is not
As you know, the Ethiopian government expelled from the Ogaden the International Committee of the Red Cross, a rare neutral observer of the crisis left in the region. Only a few independent humanitarian organizations remain on the ground trying, with great difficulty and in the face of continuing government obstruction, to access civilians in desperate need of relief.
If we are to avert this looming humanitarian crisis, the
The Conflict in
Mr. Chairman, there is also great cause for concern about
the situation in southern and central
Since January 2007, a coalition of insurgent groups,
including the extremist Al-Shabaab militia, has waged almost daily attacks on
Ethiopian and TFG forces, including several suicide attacks, and killed TFG
civilian officials. The insurgency has repeatedly launched mortar attacks from
densely populated neighborhoods of
In response, Ethiopian forces launched two major offensives
on large areas of
Violations by the insurgency, a loose coalition of Somali armed groups, include: the indiscriminate firing of mortar rounds into civilian areas; deployment of forces in densely populated neighborhoods; targeted killings of civilian officials of the transitional Somali government; and summary executions and mutilation of the bodies of captured combatants.
Ethiopian forces backing the Somali transitional government
violated the laws of war by widely and indiscriminately bombarding highly
populated areas of
Somali transitional government forces played a secondary role to the Ethiopian military, but failed to provide effective warnings to civilians in combat zones, looted property, impeded relief efforts for displaced people, and mistreated dozens of people detained in mass arrests.
Tens of thousands of displaced people are living in desperate circumstances without sufficient food, water, shelter or medical supplies, easy prey to extortion and abuse by the warring parties.
Ethiopian and Somali Transitional Government claims that the armed opposition was defeated in April have been undermined in subsequent months by the almost daily incidents of violence, many of which do untold damage to civilians.
Counterproductive Role of the
From a practical and policy point of view, which may be of
significant interest to this Committee and the US Congress, the
The current US-backed Ethiopian approach will lead to a mountain
of civilian deaths and a litany of abuses. The policy risks precipitating
exactly the sort of human-rights disaster in
The Administration should rethink a policy which is
encouraging serious abuses, and come up with one which prioritizes the
protection of civilians.
The onset of the rainy season in late September is likely to temporarily suspend military operations. That could provide a reprieve during which diplomatic efforts might be promising. The Administration should abandon its current policy of what amounts to “silent diplomacy” on human rights issues, which has yielded no tangible dividends. Instead the Administration should:
· Conduct a full policy review on the Horn of Africa.
Press for full, independent investigations of
human rights abuses in
· Urge the Ethiopian government to immediately facilitate full unimpeded access of international humanitarian organizations to civilians in need of assistance in Somali region.
Ensure that the provisions of the “Leahy Law”
are fully adhered to, by verifying that no
Publicly call for
Cease cooperating with the Ethiopian government
in secret renditions of people fleeing the conflict in