By | January 31, 2018

Human Rights and Democracy in Ethiopia, today’s presentation by Anuradha Mittal at the US Congress

Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman  (AP Photo/Jim Anderson)

By Anuradha Mittal, January 30, 2018

Congressman Ellison & Congressman Coffman, Congressional staffers, and the Ethiopian diaspora, thank you for this opportunity to share Oakland Institute’s experience and our concerns about land rights and the human rights situation in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was the world’s second largest recipient of development aid, having received $4.1 billion in aid in 2016. United States is the largest bilateral donor to Ethiopia – giving $865.65 million in 2016, the highest since 2010. The same year some 18 million Ethiopians required food assistance. In fact, every single year 8 to 18 million Ethiopians have depended on donor-funded food or cash handouts for their survival.

Anuradha Mittal, founder and executive director of the Oakland Institute, is an internationally renowned expert on trade, development, human rights and agriculture issues.

And yet, Ethiopia is hailed as a nation in “renaissance” – praised for its economic growth and partnership on key US strategic interests. Missing from this narrative is that the Ethiopian government’s “development” strategy is based on widespread human rights violations, forced evictions, displacement of millions of people from their traditional lands, and the criminalization of dissent through the misuse of the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Government plans to take over land in the Oromia region, which triggered protests in November 2015, are the unfortunate reality all over the country.

The enormous financial support Ethiopia gets from its international donors has been essential in funding the government’s development strategy, as outlined in its Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). A cornerstone of USAID activity in Ethiopia was support for the GTP, a key element of which was the relocation of 1.5 million people from areas targeted for industrial plantations under the government’s “villagization” scheme. These displacements were carried out without the free, prior, and informed consent of the impacted populations, and when communities resisted, they were forcibly removed by means of violence, imprisonment, intimidation, and the denial of humanitarian assistance, including food aid. Many were turned into refugees living now in Kenya and South Sudan. Today I am reminded of an 88-year old Anuak woman from Gambella, who I met in a refugee camp outside Nairobi. She said: “ Look at me. At this age do you think I would want to leave home. I left forests, rivers … to come to the desert of this refugee camp when I was forcibly removed.”

These forced resettlements have operated in tandem with Ethiopia’s land-investment policies. In early 2008, the government embarked on the process to award millions of hectares of land to foreign and national agricultural investors at rock-bottom prices. The 2015 Investment Guide to Ethiopia, a document from the Ethiopia Investment Commission, states there are nearly 11.55 million ha of potential land available for farming. The GTP II mentions 14.1 million ha set for biofuel development.

While the human rights consequences of the EPRDF’s political hegemony are indisputable and have been acknowledged by USAID and the State Department, recognition of human rights violations resulting from the government’s forced removals has gone overlooked. Our on-the-ground research since 2008 has exposed the systemic and coerced resettlement of indigenous communities and has documented specific accounts of beatings, unlawful arrests, torture, and rape at the hands of the Ethiopian Defense Force, all used to enforce the government’s villagization program.

Though it has displaced thousands of indigenous people, the villagization program has never reached the 1.5 million people targeted by the government. However the program was revisited last year and the government seems to have fresh plans to relocate people in a new version of the program. This includes communities that were not impacted by the first phase of villagisation. Whereas the Oakland Institute has mostly documented forced relocations related to the establishment of large-scale agricultural plantations, the areas targeted are sometimes also rich in metals and minerals. This is the case in Dima district in the Gambella region. It is rich in gold reserve and has been the target of the government to displace local farmers from their land. Similarly, a Chinese company was granted gold mining license along Alworo River in Abobo district. This is an area where the local farmers use the land along the river bank to cultivate, graze and gather drinking water.

In 2014, we documented how officials from USAID heard first-hand accounts of forced resettlements and human rights abuses from villagers and still concluded that the allegations were “unsubstantiated.” In spite of hearing from people directly impacted, USAID officials said that no evidence exists to make the links between their programs and the practices of the Ethiopian government. The actual recordings and transcripts of this USAID assessment are available on our website and everyone can hear what US officials heard during their own investigation.

The USAID officials were ignoring their initiative, “Ethiopia: Land Tenure and Administration Program” (ELAP), targeting high-potential investment areas with the stated purpose of facilitating investment. Today Land Administration to Nurture Development (LAND), which replaced ELAP, is assisting the federal and regional state governments in implementing policies and plans to encourage investment for so called appropriate use of land for improved productivity.

US development assistance also operates through Feed the Future (FTF), which aims to make pastoralist land more productive. While FTF mentions concerns about Ethiopia’s “policy of settlement regarding pastoral peoples,” it places primary importance on increasing private sector capacity in pastoral communities as a means to development. Whereas USAID has spent millions over the past decades to support pastoralists in Ethiopia, there is no indication that it has taken any step to address the issue of land grabbing, which affects many pastoralist and agropastoralist communities.

In September 2015, in violation of Appropriations Bills of 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016, the US Treasury voted in favor of World Bank’s new Enhancing Shared Prosperity through Equitable Services (ESPES) program in Ethiopia ESPES. With $600 million contribution of which $428.59 million has been disbursed, ESPES replaces the Bank’s Promoting Basic Services (PBS) program, which for years was associated with human rights abuses and the forced relocation of indigenous communities and large-scale land grabs. These issues were highlighted by the World Bank’s own independent Inspection Panel in 2015. Rather than addressing the grave concerns raised, the Bank, instead, launched an almost identical initiative under a new name. Our report Moral Bankruptcy: World Bank Reinvents Tainted Aid Program for Ethiopia, provides the details of this.

And in the course of our work, we have seen Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation used as the tool to carry out the government’s development strategy. It is a tool of repression, designed and used by the Ethiopian Government to silence its critics.

The law defines terrorism in an extremely broad and vague way so as to give the government enormous leeway to punish words and actions that would be perfectly legal in a democracy. It also gives the police and security services unprecedented new powers, and shifts the burden of proof to the accused. Worse still, many of those charged report having been tortured, and the so-called confessions that have been obtained as a result have been used against them at trial. Those who have been charged as terrorists under the law include newspaper editors, indigenous leaders like Mr, Okello, former governor of Gambella, Pastor Omot, translator for the World Bank Inspection panel, as well as bloggers, political opposition members, and students.

The Anti Terrorism law is used by the Ethiopian government, not against the terrorists, but to curb human rights of its own citizens. I am not just talking about some opposition leaders or prominent media persons. In 2016-2017 alone, over 1,000 people were killed and over 26,000 were arrested. We fail to find any other country in sub-Saharan Africa with this level of repression.

Ethiopia’s repressive system is not just about barring political freedom; to a large extent, it is about ensuring the control of a minority over the resources of the country and the benefits of the economic development. Many political prisoners in Ethiopia are not just members of opposition political parties but ordinary citizens who oppose the theft of their land and natural resources by the government.

They are members of indigenous communities such as the Anuak, Bodi, Mursi and other marginalized groups who spoke up against land grabbing and for the rights of their people to decent livelihoods and life in dignity. Thousands are being held by the regime in facilities across the country though the actual number is unknown given the general opacity surrounding such matters.

The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty of the Ethiopian government but the silence of the US and the World Bank who turn a blind eye year after year.

For years, while donor countries like the US have turned a blind eye, thousands of Ethiopians have languished behind bars simply for speaking up against so-called development policies and related human rights abuses, all perpetrated by the Ethiopian regime.

It is within this context, after years of political suppression, and the imposition of a 10-month state of emergency, came the announcement on January 3rd, that the government will close the notorious Maekelawi prison and some political prisoners would be released. These actions, if actually carried through, are all long overdue, but not enough.

We need to consider the following: “Who is considered a political prisoner? How and when will these releases take place and under what conditions? Going forward, what kinds of political freedoms will be allowed? The right to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of the media? How will the perpetrators of crimes that have been committed against Ethiopian citizens be held accountable? These are all details that have not yet been released.

Ethiopia is one of the largest recipients of US development aid. It is imperative to ensure that efforts to reduce hunger, poverty and conflict in the East Africa are not being undermined by undemocratic and repressive development practices in Ethiopia. Congress put forward important protection in the Appropriations Bills around our aid being used for forced displacements. It is time to follow-through with those promises, to ensure proper monitoring of the situation on the ground, and where necessary, the redirection of funds.

We cannot underestimate the need for development aid, especially during major humanitarian crises. Yet it is counterproductive if donor aid is supporting the destruction of natural resources upon which the poor directly depend, and if it enables projects that lead to human rights abuses. US support to the Ethiopian government – financial, political and moral – is in danger of producing exactly the opposite result from what we intend. It is enabling an authoritarian government to ignore the rights and interests of its own citizens, which can only end in violence and instability. The US Congress should undertake a serious examination of our development aid to Ethiopia, to ensure that it is not supporting political repression, and is not being funneled into land grabs that are undermining the poverty-alleviation intent of US taxpayer aid.

It must also be asked what has been done concretely to monitor that US agencies as well as the World Bank were respecting the instructions given by the Appropriation Bills all these years. These agencies and institutions must be held accountable!

Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that get in the way of social progress and democracy. It is time for the United States to speak up for democracy and for human rights in Ethiopia. HR Resolution 128 is one such step in the right direction.

Rep. Ellison Briefing on Human Rights and Democracy in Ethiopia

For Immediate Release
Tuesday, January 30, 2018 – 1:00pm
Tue, 30 Jan 2018 13:00:00 -0500

Organization Profile:  Representative Keith Ellison

Contact:  Hamid Bendaas, 202-450-0491

Rep. Keith Maurice Ellison, Deputy Chair of the Democratic National Committee

WASHINGTON – In November 2015, mostly peaceful student protests broke out in Ethiopia’s Oromia region. The Ethiopian government’s brutal crackdown brought to the surface broader discontent over the suppression of critical rights and freedoms that extends beyond any single issue or ethnic group. These protests have expanded well beyond the Oromia region and developed into Ethiopia’s longest and most widespread protest movement since the ruling party took power in 1991.

This briefing, hosted by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), will examine the current state of human rights and democracy in Ethiopia. Speakers will provide an overview of the human rights situation and challenges, as well as the challenges faced by many of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups. They will also recommend actions for members of Congress to advance human rights and promote stabilization.

WHAT: Briefing on the State of Human Rights and Democracy in Ethiopia

WHEN: Tuesday, January 30, 2018, 3:00PM – 4:30PM

WHERE: 121 Cannon House Office Building


  • Felix Horne, Senior Researcher, Horn of Africa, Human Rights Watch;
  • Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director, The Oakland Institute;
  • Abdi Mohamoud, President, The Ogaden Voice for Peace;
  • Tewodrose Tirfe, Co-Founder, Amhara Association of America;
  • Teshite Wako, President, Oromo Community of Minnesota, and
  • Moderated by Lauren Ploch Blanchard, African Affairs Specialist, Congressional Research Service

Rep. Ellison has represented the Fifth Congressional District of Minnesota in the U.S. House of Representatives since taking office on January 4, 2007. The Fifth Congressional District is the most vibrant and diverse district in Minnesota with a rich history and traditions.The Fifth District includes the City of Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs.

H. RES. 128

Supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ)

February 15, 2017

Mr. Smith of New Jersey (for himself, Ms. Bass, Mr. Coffman, Ms. Kelly of Illinois, Mr. Veasey, and Mr. Ellison) submitted the following resolution; which was referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs



Supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia.

Whereas the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has been an ally of the United States and a partner in the War on Terrorism, as well as a contributor to international peacekeeping;

Whereas the first pillar of the United States Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, announced in 2012, is to strengthen democratic institutions, and the Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Strategy of the United States Agency for International Development states that “strong democratic institutions, respect for human rights, and participatory, accountable governance are crucial elements for improving people’s lives in a sustainable way”;

Whereas the third pillar of the United States Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa is to advance peace and security, including supporting security sector reform;

Whereas democratic space in Ethiopia has steadily diminished since the general elections of 2005;

Whereas elections were held in 2015 in which the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party claimed 100 percent of parliamentary seats;

Whereas the 2016 Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Ethiopia cited serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, killings, and torture committed by security forces, restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of association, politically motivated trials, harassment, and intimidation of opposition members and journalists;

Whereas the Ethiopian Human Rights Council reported 102 deaths by April 2016 and Human Rights Watch subsequently reported that the Ethiopian security forces had killed between 500 and 800 peaceful protestors in the Oromia and Amhara regions by November 2016, and the number is likely higher;

Whereas state-sponsored violence against those exercising their rights to peaceful assembly, in Oromia and elsewhere in the country, and the abuse of laws to stifle journalistic freedoms stand in direct contrast to democratic principles and violate the constitution of Ethiopia;

Whereas since protests started in Oromia in 2015, the Ethiopian government has charged more than 150 students, opposition leaders, and activists at the Federal High Court under the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (ATP) and repeatedly has abused such law to limit the freedom of the press, silence independent journalists, and persecute members of the political opposition, including by—

(1) charging 20 university students in March 2016 under the criminal code for protesting in front of the United States Embassy in Addis Ababa, based only on a video of their protest and a list of demands;

(2) arresting Merera Gudina, Chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress in December 2016 to be investigated under the ATP after he held meetings with European Union officials in Brussels;

(3) charging Yonatan Tesfaye Regassa, the former head of public relations for the opposition Semayawi Party (the Blue Party), with “planning, preparation, conspiracy, incitement and attempt” of a terrorist act, citing Facebook posts by Regassa about the protests as evidence; and

(4) arresting Getachew Shiferaw (the editor-in-chief of the online newspaper “Negere Ethiopia”), Fikadu Mirkana, (a news editor and reporter with the public “Oromia Radio and TV”), and blogger Zelalem Workagenehu (with an independent diaspora blog) under charges of conspiring to overthrow the government and supporting terrorism under the ATP;

Whereas, on April 25, 2016, the Federal High Court sentenced the former governor of the Gambella region, Okello Akway Ochalla, to nine years imprisonment, and the trial of Ochalla and his co-defendants was marred by violations of fair trial guarantees and included the use of witness testimonies in exchange for non-prosecution under the ATP;

Whereas in August 2015, eighteen Ethiopian Muslim leaders received prison sentences ranging from seven to 22 years in prison for peacefully protesting against government interference in the religious affairs of the Islamic community, some of whom were later pardoned;

Whereas criminal courts in Ethiopia are weak, overburdened, subject to political influence, accept the use of forced confessions, and allow detainees to be held for months without charge;

Whereas serious concerns have been raised regarding prison conditions in Ethiopia, including overcrowding, poor sanitation, lack of access to potable water, excessive use of solitary confinement, the use of rape and torture, withholding access to medical treatment, and denial of access to proper legal counsel or to visitors;

Whereas laws such as the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation have been used to restrict the operation of civil society organizations in Ethiopia, especially those investigating alleged violations of human rights by governmental authorities;

Whereas in June 2016, the Government of Ethiopia announced that it closed down more than 200 nongovernmental organizations within a nine-month period from 2015 to 2016 for failing to comply with the restrictive provisions of the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation;

Whereas the development strategy of the Government of Ethiopia has targeted the relocation of more than 1,500,000 people, including indigenous Anuaks in the Gambella region, from their ancestral lands for large-scale land development under the “villagization” program;

Whereas the case of the “Zone 9 Bloggers”, whose arrest, detention, and trials on terrorism charges brought international attention to the restrictions on the freedom of the press in Ethiopia, is indicative of the coercive environment in which Ethiopian journalists operate;

Whereas, on October 9, 2016, the Government of Ethiopia imposed a far-reaching, six-month state of emergency that restricts a broad range of actions, including blocking mobile Internet access and social media communication, undermining freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful assembly, which led to the arrest of over 22,000 persons according to Ethiopian Government accounts, and codifying such tactics as arbitrary detention;

Whereas serious abuses have been and continue to be committed in the Somali regional state by federal and regional security forces, some of which may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity;

Whereas there has been no credible independent investigation into any of the abuses mentioned herein and no indication that anyone has been held to account for these abuses; and

Whereas during President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Addis Ababa in July 2015, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn expressed the commitment of his government to deepen the democratic process and work towards improving governance and respect for human rights, and noted the need to step up efforts to strengthen institutions: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives—

(1) condemns—

(A) the killing of peaceful protesters and excessive use of force by Ethiopian security forces;

(B) the arrest and detention of journalists, students, activists, and political leaders who exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and expression through peaceful protests; and

(C) the abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle political and civil dissent and journalistic freedoms(2) urges protesters in Ethiopia to refrain from violence and to refrain from encouragement or acceptance of violence in demonstrations;(

3) urges all armed factions to cease their conflict with the Government of Ethiopia and engage in peaceful negotiations directly and through international intermediaries;

(4) calls on the Government of Ethiopia to—

(A) lift the state of emergency;

(B) end the use of excessive force by security forces;

(C) conduct a full, credible, and transparent investigation into the killings and instances of excessive use of force that took place as a result of protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions and hold security forces accountable for wrongdoing through public proceedings;

(D) release dissidents, activists, and journalists who have been imprisoned, including those arrested for reporting about the protests, for exercising constitutional rights;

(E) respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and guarantee the freedom of the press and mass media, in keeping with Articles 30 and 29 of the Ethiopian constitution;

(F) engage in open and transparent consultations with citizens regarding its development strategy, especially those strategies that could result in the displacement of people from their land;

(G) allow a rapporteur appointed by the United Nations to conduct an independent examination of the state of human rights in Ethiopia;

(H) address the grievances brought forward by representatives of registered opposition parties;

(I) hold accountable those responsible for killing, torturing, and detaining innocent civilians who exercised their constitutional rights;

(J) repeal proclamations that—

(i) can be used as a political tool to harass or prohibit funding for civil society organizations that investigate human rights violations, engage in peaceful political dissent, or advocate for greater political freedoms;

(ii) prohibit or otherwise limit those displaced from their land from seeking remedy or redress in courts, or do not provide a transparent, accessible means to access justice for those so displaced;

(iii) allow for the arrest and detention of peaceful protesters and political opponents who legally exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association; and

(iv) prohibit or otherwise limit peaceful nonprofit operations in Ethiopia; and

(K) investigate the circumstances surrounding the September 3, 2016, shootings and fire at Qilinto Prison, the deaths of persons in attendance at the annual Irreecha festivities at Lake Hora near Bishoftu on October 2, 2016, and the ongoing killings of civilians over several years in the Somali Regional State by federal and regional police, and publically release a report on such investigations in an expedient manner;

(5) calls on the Secretary of State to conduct a review of security assistance to Ethiopia in light of recent developments and to improve transparency with respect to the purposes of such assistance to the people of Ethiopia(6) calls on the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development to immediately lead efforts to develop a comprehensive strategy to support improved democracy and governance in Ethiopia;

(7) calls on the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, to improve oversight and accountability of United States assistance to Ethiopia, pursuant to the expectations established in the United States Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa;

(8) calls on the Secretary of State, in cooperation with the Secretary of the Treasury, to apply appropriate sanctions on foreign persons or entities responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against any nationals in Ethiopia as provided for in the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act; and

(9) stands by the people of Ethiopia and supports their peaceful efforts to increase democratic space and to exercise the rights guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution.

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