No Place for Human Rights

(Seyoum Habtemariam)

COLOGNE spoke with Seyoum Habtemariam, director of the Ethiopian Human Rights Committee in Germany, about the visit of German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Dirk Niebel, to Ethiopia. German Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Dirk Niebel, visited Ethiopia last week. You, in the name of the Ethiopian Human Rights Committee, strongly criticized his visit. Why?

Seyoum Habtemariam: We were hoping that during his stay in Addis Ababa, Mr. Niebel would speak out clearly on the oppression of Ethiopian civil society and opposition. But he only spoke about it in internal discussions with the Prime Minister and this, of course, is insufficient for a positive change to take place in Ethiopia. The German minister focused his talks basically on foreign investments and on economic cooperation with Ethiopia. Human rights played practically no role. Opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa has been recently released from prison. Isn't there some improvement of human rights in Ethiopia?

Seyoum: No, even though we are happy about Birtukan's release. By the way: while in prison, Birtukan was refused medical aid. We had informed the German Embassy, but the German foreign ministry showed no interest. Take another example. Last year, the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists, which keeps track of state repression of journalists throughout the world, published statistics on representatives of the media, who have been forced into exile. According to these statistics, more than 12 Percent of all journalists, who had to flee their country between August 1, 2001 and May 31, 2010, are from Ethiopia. Ethiopia therefore ranks number 1 among the states of the world that are forcing journalists to leave the country, even ranking ahead of Somalia, Iraq, Iran or Zimbabwe. We had asked Mr. Niebel to contact two well known Ethiopian journalists, Serkalem Fasil and Eskinder Nega. Serkalem Fasil, co-editor of several critical weeklies, had been arrested in 2005. She gave birth to her child under horrible conditions while in prison. She was released only in 2007, thanks to strong pressure from Amnesty International. Her husband, Eskinder Nega, had also been arrested because of his journalistic work several times. Both are still being denied the right to work in their profession. We appealed to Mr. Niebel to make contact also with Elfenesh Demisse, chairwoman of the independent Ethiopian Human Rights Council. The government had closed down eight of its offices and froze its bank accounts. Niebel rejected our appeal. Niebel says that he had had talks in Addis Ababa with members of the opposition.

Seyoum: This is true. He had to, after all of the accusations, raised against the Ethiopian regime over the past few months, particularly by Human Rights Watch. Otherwise the German government would have lost all credibility. Already before his visit, Niebel had announced that human rights and the civil society would be top priority. But then the German embassy in Addis Ababa and the Ethiopian government coordinated the schedule of Niebel's visit, focusing it on business relations and otherwise concentrating on Karlheinz Böhm's "Menschen für Menschen" aid organization. During his visit, Niebel spoke with the opposition for only two hours. The Ethiopian opposition no longer has hopes of support from the West. It considers these alibi visits to simply be a show - business as usual. In your opinion, the meeting with the opposition brought no results?

Seyoum: None. Mr Niebel declared after the meeting that the cooperation with the Ethiopian regime will continue unchanged. He could have publicly demanded beforehand, and in no uncertain terms, that Addis Ababa release prisoners some of whom have spent already more than ten years in prison for political reasons and have also been tortured. Instead, he praised the prime minister and the leadership qualities of the Ethiopian regime in the German media - a regime accused of gross human rights violations, such as the systematic rape and torture of women, last May's brutal killings of the parliamentary candidate, Amarech Gelane, a mother of 6, shot 23 times, and of another parliamentary candidate Aregawi Gebreyohanis, who was beaten to death. That regime has also been accused of serious war crimes in Ethiopia and Somalia. For years, we have been witnessing how the German government actually ignores democracy, human rights and therefore the interests of the Ethiopian population, holding alibi talks with the opposition, merely meant for the protocol. We always hear: "The German government is closely following Ethiopia's domestic development", which gives "cause for concern", but practically nothing happens. By the way, this is very different when governments are not eager to cooperate with the West, such as in Sudan, Zimbabwe or Côte d'Ivoire.

You have to remember: The Ethiopian government is responsible for the deaths of more than 200, with more than 760 wounded - Including 40 children - during the demonstrations against the electoral fraud in 2005. The entire oppositional leadership and over 30,000 of its members had been thrown into prison camps. Hundreds were shot in Addis Ababa in 1991, 1993, 2001, in June and November of 2005 and in Awassa in 2002, in Gambela in 2003. In 2008, villages in Ogaden were burned, hundreds of people shot and women systematically raped. Niebel is of course making demands - for example, he is demanding that the Ethiopian regime finally register the treaty on the protection of German investments at the United Nations. Security for German investors - this is important for the government. Human rights only serve the protocol and as PR to the German public. We can currently see how in Tunisia, a repressive regime that has long been considered stable, suddenly implodes. Berlin is considering the Ethiopian government to be a stabilizing power in East Africa, otherwise more famous - for example Somalia or Sudan - for its instability. Do you share this opinion?

Seyoum: I think that is a completely wrong calculation. Meles' regime is everything but stable. For many years, Tunisia had been considered stable and a strong ally in the war on terror. This misconception could prove to be a lesson to the German government and its partners. Meles' position is becoming increasingly instable. There is a great deal of anger in the population over the government's repressive measures and corruption. A small spark could suffice, to set off a big catastrophe. The case of Tunisia shows us that not even the German government's cosmetics can help regimes that are contemptuous toward the population and protect them against the people's efforts to win freedom and democracy. In reference to the Human Rights Watch accusation that the Ethiopian government diverts development aid funds to exert political influence during the run-up to the elections in Mai 2010, Niebel responded that he had discussed this with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. There was no comprehensive and systematic exertion of influence, at most a few isolated cases.

Seyoum: Niebel is referring to declarations made by the GTZ (German Association for Technical Cooperation) and the German embassy in Addis Ababa, which are defending the authoritarian prime minister. But the information given by the people in Ethiopia confirm the report and criticism raised by Human Rights Watch. Newspapers report that Niebel and the parliamentarians, who had accompanied him, had been "impressed by the development strategy of the leadership in Addis Ababa."

Seyoum: For years, the development strategy of the authoritarian regime in Addis Ababa included the misuse of development aid. In cases of disloyalty, people are being denied work, education or food and even fertilizer. It is difficult to believe that parliamentarians would praise this. And, by the way, during Niebel and the German parliamentarians' visit to Addis Ababa, two journalists were imprisoned there, while others were awaiting their trials, threatened with long prison sentences. Ethiopian NGOs are being repressed under an NGO-law, the freedom of the press has been practically nullified, and other rights are being eliminated by a so-called anti-terror law. There are no successes to be reported. Prime Minister Meles explained that he has been invited by Niebel to attend the Munich Security Conference in February.

Seyoum: Mr Niebel invites Meles Zenawi, who is responsible for brutal human rights violations, to Munich? With this invitation, Germany is losing all credibility in world public opinion on questions of democracy and human rights. Whoever invites war criminals and those responsible for electoral fraud has no moral right to accuse objectionable governments - for example in Belarus and Zimbabwe - of electoral fraud and human rights violations. There are already rebel movements in Ethiopia, growing in numbers and in violence.

Seyoum: This hurts me personally, because I reject all violence. This is why I urgently appeal to the German government and the EU, to bring the regime and the entire opposition to the negotiating table to seek a peaceful solution before it is too late. I really do believe it would be possible. And pressure could be applied using the funds for development aid, without which Mele Zenawi's regime is unable to act. Would cutting development aid not be at the expense of the population?

Seyoum: You see, Human Rights Watch has recently proven that the population has been suffering for a long time, because western development aid is being used to strengthen the position of the Ethiopian regime, while decimating the opposition. Most civil society organizations have already been dissolved. During last weeks visit, Mr Niebel didn't even try to contact the often invoked civil society. The situation is desolate. With the best of intentions for Ethiopia, many Germans have often donated money, aside from development aid - to fight famine. I appeal to all German citizens to stop raising money for Ethiopia and to demand, at the same time, an account of what their taxes are being used for in Ethiopia. In the past, development aid and even donations have helped support the regime in Addis Ababa and the oppression of the population. That has to stop. Without human rights, freedom and democracy there will be no development and no stability in Ethiopia.