In2007 aUnited Nations Humanitarian Assessment Mission headed by the former British diplomat John Holmes travelled to the Ogaden to observe the desperate and deteriorating situation of the civilian population engulfed in the ensuing conflict between the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Ethiopian Government.

Although the report primarily focused on the humanitarian situation, concerns were also raised about the deteriorating human rights situation. Consequently, the Humanitarian Assessment Report presented recommendations to improve the accessibility, mobility and transparency of the United Nation’s work in the Ogaden where their findings had shown a systemic high level of mismanagement and a damning revelation that food aid meant for the needy poor was used by the Ethiopian army as a weapon of war to suppress the ONLF rebellion.

However no follow-up report after the humanitarian fact-finding mission was released by the U.N to ascertain whether any of the recommendations have been met or whether the general conditions of the region have improved. In fact it can only be assumed that the U.N placed political considerations ahead of its work as insiders (Aid Workers and some diplomats) with experience in the region have intimated in private conversations themselves wary ofEthiopia’s aggressive stance on the issue. An aid worker who concealed his name for fear of repercussions had recently told the Christian Science Monitor that “if anybody were to push their agenda beyond a limit considered acceptable byEthiopia’s notoriously strong and rigid government, then they would risk being expelled from the country.”

In the five year period since the U.N’s fact-finding mission report, the Ethiopian government has grown more confident and bolder in its attempts to stifle dissent and opposition to its rule. The Meles Government has expanded the media and economic blockage of the Ogaden by denying journalists access to the region. Most recently two Swedish journalists have been jailed under the country’s new anti-terrorism law which bans contact with groups the regime deems to be a “terrorist organisation”. Aid organisations have not been spared also with prominent aid groups like the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders still facing a ban from operating in the Ogaden. These organisations have been known for their impartiality in conflict zones. Their expulsion from Ogaden left the region in a desperate situation and without the little social services they once offered, especially The Red Cross which documented and regularly visited prisoners.

If this was not enough for donors and the U.N to review their relationship with the Ethiopian regime, a new NGOs law – “Charities and Societies Proclamation law (CSO law)” – was introduced by the regime in February 2009. According to this law, NGOs that receive more than 10% of their financing from foreign sources are banned from engaging in human rights and advocacy activities. Amnesty International (AI) had this to say about this draconian law: “The law’s repressive provisions are believed to be an attempt by the Ethiopian government to conceal human rights violations, stifle critics and prevent public protest of its actions ahead of expected elections in2010.”

When the law went into force it produced the desired results and the ruling EPRDF coalition won the supposed 2010 elections with a mind-boggling 99% of the vote in a country rife with opposition. In areas like the Ogaden instead of ballot-boxes the regime has been busy expanding its tight control over the region enforcing a stifling trade blockade, specifically cross-border trade with neighbouringSomaliawhere large quantities of live-stock are exported. The majority of the population in the Ogaden are pastoralists who depend on the livestock trade for their survival; consequently, the closure of the commercial cross border route has had a crippling effect on them economically. Repeated drought conditions aggravated by the blockade, and the selective distribution of the little humanitarian aid that was available by the Ethiopian regime, has produced a dire humanitarian catastrophe in the Ogaden.

The creation of a government funded militia known as the “Liyuu police” has further added to the woes of the region’s population. These militias have been given free rein to arrest, kill, and torture anyone they want with reckless abandon. The Liyuu militia has committed some of the worst atrocities in the region’s recent history.

The conduct of these militias has largely been attributed to the instructions they receive from senior Ethiopian army officers as defected militia members have said that they were asked to show no mercy not even to their relatives who’re accused of being members of what they call ‘anti-peace elements’ – a euphemism for ONLF. Those who are suspected of disengaging from these guidelines are themselves mercilessly dealt with.

Much of the militias have been recruited from the very bottom of the social ladder. The offer of a stable revenue stream and unchecked authority with immunity has been attractive with some young adults living on the edge. The regime inAddis Abababelieves this policy of using the locals against each other would deoralize the ONLF and destroy their rebellion. However, this has only made the Front more potent as a growing number of people affected by the brutality of Ethiopian troops and the Liyuu Police have joined their ranks.

Each one of these terrible conditions mentioned – the illegal blockade, man-made famine/drought and the human rights abuses – which the Ethiopian regime has imposed on the Ogaden, should be enough to cause alarm among the U.N and donors who fund the regime to the tune of over $3 billion a year. It seems that the concept of fighting the “war on terror” by borrowing Ethiopia’s military muscle to defeat Al-Shabab and Islamist rebels in Somalia, who ironically sprung up and flourished on the back of Ethiopia’s brutal occupation, justifies ignoring Ethiopia’s crimes and violations in the Ogaden.

The U.N is a key force which can help shape the current favourable view ofEthiopiain the eyes of Western donor nations by showing them that the Ethiopian regime is not fulfilling its international commitments. With Meles Zenawi’s government now in power for over two decades, the international community has had ample time to inspect the regime and arrive at a conclusive decision. Instead, Meles Zenawi has been a constant guest at International functions. At the Energy for all Conference which was held in Norway in October 2011, protesters gathered outside the venue in their hundreds to demand answers from the international community as to why the despotic Ethiopian regime was been given blank checks on human rights.

As the protest grew louder, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and U.N Secretary General Banki-Moon, could not escape been queried by the international media on the Ogaden situation. Their responses were not specific or direct; each lectured about their general policy of standing to protect human rights but did not give any indication that they were pressuringEthiopiato halt its repressive tactics. Mr Banki-moon explained that the U.N has been sending “missions” and “necessary humanitarian assistance” to alleviate the situation in Ogaden. This is far from truth: the little assistance the U.N provides via WFP is distributed by the army in designated areas. The UN’s own report in 2007 stated: “The mission noted that food aid was generally being off-loaded along main roads, mainly in major towns, and based on the directions of military convoy leaders”.

Why the U.N allowed this blatant violation of its rules and regulation when it has the power to positively influence is puzzling to say the least. Furthermore, the arrests and prosecution of two U.N workers, Yusuf Mohammed and Abdirahman Sheikh Hassan in the Ogaden, which did not elicit strong protestation and condemnation from the U.N shows a shameful acquiescence toEthiopia’s bullying tactics.

The U.N should not become victim toEthiopia’s repressive laws and policies. The claim that if donors are too vocal and critical of the Ethiopian government, the regime would deny access to the vulnerable poor and displaced in need of international aid simply does not hold water.

It is no secret that the Ethiopian government is misusing aid. A joint investigation conducted by the BBC and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in August 2011 revealed the extensive misuse of donor aid after visiting villages denied food aid as punishment for not supporting the regime of Meles Zenawi. With such occurrences happening right under the nose of the U.N it is unusual that no concrete steps have been taken to combat this problem except for the usual occasional lip-service. In a country where aid comprises over 90% of the budget it is hard to believe that the U.N has no leverage to pressurize and influence the regime inAddis Ababato halt its repressive laws and actions. The fact that the U.N cannot locate the final destination of the aid it gives nor secure the release of its own officials from Ethiopian prisons shows a clear failure on the part of the U.N and donors. The Ethiopian Government is not growing anymore democratic nor is the silence around these issues contributing to improving the situation.

The U.N mandate is to help the weak and vulnerable, specifically in the areas of food, security and health in war ravaged places like the Ogaden. Clearly this objective has not been pursued as rigorously as it should. Instead, we hear about UN staff stressing that they are unable to speak out against human rights violations and the abuse of food aid by the Ethiopian regime as they risk losing their jobs.

 All Aid going toEthiopiashould be reviewed and audited. The regime should be encouraged and even forced to allow the free-flow of humanitarian aid and unhindered access to the intended recipients. The aid, which is the lifeline of the regime, should be tied to democratization. The U.N has a moral and legal duty to prevent the use of its aid as a weapon of war by the Ethiopian regime.




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