Thank you very much for inviting Human Rights Watch to participate. It's a great opportunity to discuss some of these issues that we've been concerned about for some time at Human Rights Watch.
I'd like to touch briefly on three issues in my opening remarks. One is that I would just like to give a very brief picture of the human rights situation in Ethiopia as we see it at Human Rights Watch. Secondly, I'd like to talk about the challenges of monitoring in Ethiopia, because some of these challenges are very unique and severe. Thirdly, I'd like to describe, very briefly, the research that we've done in the last few years on the manipulation of development aid.
To start off with, let me just say that Ethiopia is a country of great promise, but one that we see as moving in the wrong direction. The worsening human rights trend that we see today did not begin in 2005, but with hindsight, 2005 was a very critical moment when the Ethiopian government chose a path of greater repression and, unfortunately, that's been the path that it's stuck to until today.
As you know, the elections in 2005 ended in controversy with a government crackdown and leading opposition politicians alleging election fraud. The security forces arrested an estimated 30,000 people and beat to death or shot nearly 200 people in Addis Ababa.
Since 2005, many observers, including me, have hoped that the government would reverse course after the next parliamentary elections in May 2010, but unfortunately we haven't seen that trend reverse.
The repression in Ethiopia today affects both prominent dissidents and ordinary citizens alike. Across Ethiopia and particularly in sensitive areas like Oromia and the Somali region, we have documented local officials harassing, imprisoning, or threatening to withhold government assistance from perceived critics.
Critics are often accused of serious crimes such as membership in insurgent or terrorist organizations. Most are released without being brought to trial due to the lack of any evidence against them, but generally only after they have spent extremely long periods in prison and sometimes torture or mistreatment.
Even more alarming than this pattern, though, is the fact that Ethiopia's military has committed serious abuses amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity while responding to security threats. Those responsible for these crimes have enjoyed almost complete impunity from prosecution or even investigation. The abuses and the impunity seem to be systematic. From western Gambella region to Somali region in the east, as well as in neighbouring Somalia, the security forces have, in recent years, responded repeatedly to insurgent threats with atrocities against civilians.
To date, the Ethiopian response to serious allegations of international crimes such as these has been to deny the allegations and disparage the sources, be they Ethiopian human rights groups, my own organization, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, or even the U.S. State Department. Instead of responding with genuine efforts to investigate and address these issues, the Ethiopian government has denied the allegations and conferred impunity upon the perpetrators.
Today, Ethiopia has become one of the most intolerant environments on the continent for independent voices. The government consistently uses violence, intimidation, and repressive legislation to silence political opposition, independent media, and civil society activists. Since 2009, as you know, it has enacted two new laws, one on non-governmental organizations called the CSO law, and one on anti-terrorism that effectively criminalized human rights work in the country and undermined political and civil rights. Taken together, these laws contain provisions that give the government powerful tools to criminalize human rights work, treat public protests as acts of terrorism, and broadly expand government power to curtail the rights of free association, assembly, and expression.
Prior to the passage of both of these laws, Human Rights Watch published detailed analyses of both bills, and we highlighted the worst provisions. Many of our concerns were echoed by donor governments, and some of those recommendations, of course, came out in the UN universal periodic review process on Ethiopia in the last few years.
We predicted that these laws could restrict non-governmental activity in Ethiopia and that the anti-terrorism law could be used to prosecute journalists and political opponents and, regrettably our fears have proven to be accurate. Just last year, as you may know, more than a hundred political opposition members, journalists, and others were arrested and detained. Many of them are being tried on the basis of the anti-terrorism law essentially for expression that would be covered by the Ethiopian Constitution as part of freedom of expression.
The effects of the CSO law, the NGO law, on Ethiopia's civil society have been devastating. The leading Ethiopian human rights groups have been crippled by the law, and many of their senior staff have fled the country. Some organizations changed their mandates to stop doing any kind of human rights work at all; others such as the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, Ethiopia's oldest human rights monitoring organization, and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, which had launched groundbreaking work on domestic violence and women's rights, were forced to slash their budgets, their staff, and their operations.
The effects of the CSO law are particularly important for donors because of the social accountability component of many of the large aid programs to Ethiopia. That social accountability component, as I'm sure you know, was intended to bolster monitoring of aid programs on the ground. So the fact that many of the independent organizations that would have been expected to provide information and monitoring on the effects on the ground are no longer able to function is a very serious problem for monitoring of human rights generally, as well as in terms of the development aid programs taking place in the country.
Meanwhile, while we have seen on the one hand this devastating blow to civil society we've also seen the government encouraging a variety of ruling party affiliated organizations to fill the vacuum. These include the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, a national human rights institution that has been set up by the government. In theory it should be independent, but, unfortunately, in Ethiopia it's not.
I mention the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission again specifically because it is one of the institutions that has received considerable donor funding under the democratic institutions program, which CIDA, among others, has funded over the past few years. Human Rights Watch has called on donors to suspend funding for the democratic institutions program because of the problems and concerns we have with funding these institutions within this grim broader picture of the human rights environment and our concerns about how effective this kind of program can be when you see this worsening trend of repression affecting core rights.
Human Rights Watch has considerable experience working with human rights commissions across the world, including in many other countries in Africa. In our view independence is an absolutely critical component for the effective functioning of such an institution. Another component that is generally acknowledged to be essential is the ability of such an institution to work with civil society. Again, when we have the problems that we see in Ethiopia today in terms of the ability of independent organizations to function this raises serious questions about any donor program that funds this institution in the absence of core conditions for success.
Ethiopia's government has also had very little tolerance for the independent media. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ethiopia has driven more journalists into exile over the past decade than any other nation in the world—79 at last count—and today seven journalists are in jail, a number that's only rivaled in Africa by Eritrea. That of course includes two Swedish journalists who were arrested and convicted of terrorism charges in December because they went into the eastern Somali region to investigate allegations of abuses.
I want to touch very briefly on the challenges of monitoring in Ethiopia against this backdrop, because this is a core concern that we've raised repeatedly with donors about the development programs taking place in Ethiopia. I've worked in Africa for 15 years doing human rights work and Ethiopia is without question one of the most difficult places to work. That is based on a number of factors. One reason is the Ethiopian government's restrictions on independent access and monitoring by independent organizations trying to investigate abuses, particularly in areas that it deems to be sensitive such as the Oromia or Somali regions.
It's partly also a problem because of the extensive security apparatus that's deployed at every administrative level of the country. The surveillance machine extends into almost every household in the country and as a stranger, be you Ethiopian or non-Ethiopian, if you go into a village in rural Ethiopia, your presence will be noted almost immediately. This of course has very important implications for how you can collect information in a confidential way, in which witnesses and victims of abuse will feel comfortable talking openly and confidently about what they've experienced.