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A look at the flawed State Department report

By Ejegu Yeneneh
Tigrai Onlne - March 02, 2014

The so-called Human Rights Practices report of the United States State Department has been published last week. Over 80% of the publication reproduces, almost verbatim, claims contained in previous reports. Not for the first time, the Report narrates groundless and unverifiable allegations and repeats the same politically motivated accusations obtained from dubious sources.

Another flawed, recycled “Human Right report” on Ethiopia from the State Department
The state of human rights in Ethiopia is not perfect. But Ethiopia's failings and improvements should be told without malign intent of defamation. After-all, human rights is not a push-button case, it is a matter of process and institution building

However, foreigners and even some Ethiopians may get misled since the State Dept. report is widely available on the internet. On the other-hand, unlike the wealthy government of United States, Ethiopia's government has few resources which are busy on tasks relevant to fighting poverty. Therefore, it is up to us, concerned citizens, to tell the reality on the ground, expose baseless claims and show flaws often characterize such publications.

In that spirit that I will review the latest State Dept. Report, demonstrate the flaws, inaccuracies and illogicality in this article.

The report claims that:

"The constitution and law prohibit such practices; however, there were reports security officials tortured and otherwise abused detainees."

What are the sources that indicated "security officials tortured and otherwise abused detainees"?

The report cites irrelevant and unreliable sources.

"Human Rights Watch reported abuses, including torture, occurred at Maekelawi. In an October report the NGO described beatings, stress positions, the hanging of detainees by their wrists from the ceiling, prolonged handcuffing, the pouring of water over detainees, verbal threats, and solitary confinement at the facility. Authorities continued to restrict access by diplomats and NGOs to Maekelawi."

However, the Human Rights Watch cannot serve as evidence. As Minister Sheferaw Teklemariam said: "the report is marred by excessive reliance on questionable and unverifiable testimonies and clear omission of facts and evidences. The deliberate neglect of facts on the ground and predetermined conclusion on your presentation strengthen the ideological bias rather than any concern on human rights situation."

Indeed, that report of Human Rights Watch was entirely based on hearsay collected from unnamed individuals. As usual, Human Rights Watch failed to provide details of its interviewees or any details of the alleged misconducts.That makes it impossible for the government to identify whether the interviews have taken place at all or to inquire any details of when and where alleged incidents occur.

The methodological flaws of the report is indisputably demonstrated by Human Rights Watch's admission that: "Human Rights Watch was not able to visit Maekelawi given the restrictions on independent human rights work, the difficulty of adhering to basic ethical standards on research inside detention facilities in the current environment, and the risk of reprisals against detainees following such a visit." However, Human Rights Watch never made a request to the government to visit the prison.

In sum, Human Rights Watch's report was a sub-par, prejudicial piece of work, intended to reinforce its previously rejected efforts to persuade international donors to stop developmental and humanitarian aid to Ethiopia.

The second source of the State Dept report was:

"In 2010 the UN Committee Against Torture reported it was “deeply concerned” about “numerous, ongoing, and consistent allegations” concerning “the routine use of torture” by police, prison officers, and other members of the security forces – including the military – against political dissidents and opposition party members, students, alleged terrorists, and alleged supporters of violent separatist groups like the ONLF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)."

Mind you! The 2010 UN Committee statement mentioned only “allegations”. How a four years old allegation can be an evidence for a current allegation?

Moreover, when the State Dept report says “torture”, what does it actually mean? Does it include the torture techniques employed by the United States itself in the name of “enhanced interrogation techniques”?

The “Human rights record of the United States in 2013” published by China exposes United States' practice of torture as follows:

“In 2013, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez repeatedly urged the U.S. government to abolish the use of solitary confinement. He argued, even short-term solitary confinement can be counted as torture (www.bayview.com, October 14, 2013). In California state prisons, 30,000 inmates began hunger strikes on July 8, 2013 in protest of the use of solitary confinement. The hunger strikes lasted two months (www.latimes.com. September 15, 2013).

The U.S. tortures prisoners in other countries and regions. In March 2013, the special rapporteur Ben Emmerson noted in a report that on September 17, 2001, the former U.S. President Bush authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to operate a secret detention program which involved the establishment of clandestine detention facilities known as “black sites” on the territory of other states, and allegedly authorized the CIA to carry out “extraordinary renditions.” Despite wide criticism against the CIA’s illegal action, no American official has so far been brought to justice (UN document A/HRC/22/52). The program saw terror suspects spirited to secret prisons around the globe without legal process, interrogated and sometimes tortured (www.independent.co.uk, February 18, 2013). The Open Society Foundation said at least 136 individuals were reportedly extraordinarily rendered or secretly detained by the CIA (www.opensocietyfoundations.org, February 5, 2013)”.

It is hypocritical that the State Dept report accuses without any verifiable claim the popular Ethiopian forces, who help the people nearby their camp (both in Ethiopia or when they are peace-keeping in Africa), by sharing their food, assisting in harvest gathering and the like. While there is plenty evidence its own forces have questionable records.

In fact, the State Dept report contradicts itself by admitting that:

“During the year the International Committee of the Red Cross visited regional prisons throughout the country. Regional authorities allowed government and NGO representatives to meet regularly with prisoners without third parties present. The government-established EHRC, which is funded by parliament and subject to parliamentary review, monitored federal and regional detention centers and interviewed prison officials and prisoners in response to allegations of widespread human rights abuses. The JFA-PFE was granted access to various prison and detention facilities.”

Obviously, all these frequent, unfiltered and extensive visits didn't bring any evidence of mistreatment, let alone torture.

The State Dept. report admits that the "EHRC, which is funded by parliament and subject to parliamentary review, monitored federal and regional detention centers and interviewed prison officials and prisoners in response to allegations of widespread human rights abuses. The JFA-PFE was granted access to various prison and detention facilities."

The most notable outcome of those investigations by the EHRC was the 2012 report of Ethiopian Human Rights Commission(EHRC).

Nonetheless, the State Dept. report attempts to cast doubt on the EHRC report by claiming that: "The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC).... investigated allegations of abuse, although there were reports that detainees’ discussions with them were not done in private, which could limit their ability to speak freely."

This kind of attempts to discredit the methodology of EHRC's investigations are detached from reality. To the contrary, Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) followed an impeccable methodology and to grasp the reality in Ethiopia's prisons.

 The EHRC explained its methodology as follows: "EHRC's monitoring group was divided into seven working teams each of which consisted of 2-4 experts. Next, 10-15 detainees were selected by the detainees themselves to provide information to the monitors on their behalf. The selected detainees must be representative of the entire detainees and be capable of explaining human rights condition of detainees. They should be non-members of any leadership committees in the detention center. Efforts were made to ensure that the composition of the selected detainees be of a representative nature that takes into account their religious background and detainee status. Discussions with the selected detainees were held in an area that is free from the presence and influence of prison security personnel in order to allow detainees express their views without any fear. The monitoring covers 114 (95.8%) out of the 119 detention centers in nine regional states and two Federal City Administrations. The monitoring teams made personal visits to all of these prisons."

This thorough investigation of EHRC revealed that: [according to EHRC document]: "the rights to life of all detainees in all the prisons that are covered by the monitoring are duly respected. Prisons have been observed offering all possible assistance to ensure that the right to life of all detainees is respected. It was confirmed that deceased detainees received all possible medical  assistance prior to their death. The findings also revealed that there were some detainees who died of natural causes in prison.

It was also confirmed during the monitoring that  the human rights and freedoms of the majority of  detainees under custody are appropriately  respected. Detainees, however, explained that in  49 prisons there have been cases when fellow  inmates who committed serious offenses have  been subjected to harsh disciplinary measures by  the respective committees. The punitive actions  have been described as harsher than what is  provided for in existing regulations. It was also  explained that there had been cases when  detainees were arbitrarily beaten by some  security personnel.

However, the monitoring  teams tried to find out if there had been any  torture cases in violation of Article 1 of the 1984  UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Findings confirmed that there had been no  violation of that nature."

The State Dept. report also claims that:

"The Federal Police reports to the Ministry of Federal Affairs, which is subject to parliamentary oversight. The oversight was loose. Each of the country’s nine regions has a state or special police force that reports to the regional civilian authorities. Local militias operated across the country in loose coordination with regional and federal police and the military, with the degree of coordination varying by region. In many cases these militias functioned as extensions of local EPRDF political bosses."

The State Dept. report misrepresents the citizen police (who are customarily called militia) who assist the regular police. These rural “militias” are voluntary recruits and subject to regular public evaluation/consultations meetings of the local population. The authors of the State Dept. appear to have missed all this. They referred to them as “regional government-backed militia”, as if they are paramilitary forces independent of the government. They stress this perception claiming the militias are loosely coordinated – missing their voluntary nature.

At one page, the report positively notes that the chiefs of the police and the military are civilians. On another page, it complains these militias are under EPRDF appointees. It is confusing what the authors of the report had in mind. If the militias are to be under civilian bosses, those bosses will probably be members of the ruling party. Isn't it the same in most American states with the appointment of District Attorneys and police chiefs?

The report also claimed that:

"Estimates by human rights groups and diplomatic missions regarding the number of political prisoners varied. The government did not permit access by international human rights organizations..... On May 2, the Federal Supreme Court upheld the sentences of journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega and vice chairman of the opposition front Medrek Andualem Arage for terrorism and treason."

How many political prisoners? The State Dept. report report doesn't know. This is evidence that both the authors of the State Sept Report and its sources do not have any clear definition of “political prisoners”. Since they don't have any clear definition, the section of the report on political prisoners includes people who were convicted as terrorists by all courts – from Federal First Instance Court to the Supreme Court of Ethiopia.

For example, the report cites the notorious Eskinder Nega in that category. To begin with, Eskinder Nega is not a journalist. Ethiopia's Broadcasting Authority and Government Communication Office never registered him as journalist atleast since 2002. Secondly, Eskinder has never been a blogger.

To the contrary, he was a politician as recent as 2004/2005 holding a senior position - vice Chairman of the All Amahara Peoples’ Organization (AAPO). The AAPO led by Eskinder was a hardliner splinter group that remained behind when the majority of AAPO members, led by Engineer Hailu Shawel, decided to rename the party All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP).

Of course, Eskinder was a publisher of three tabloids until 2005. That is: Askual, Menelik and Satenaw. But those newspapers were not the kind that the authors of the State Dept would endorse if they tried to learn about their contents.

It is incomprehensible that the State Dept accuses the President of Iran for denying the Holocaust and advocating the destruction of the “Zionist state”. At the same time, they exalt Eskinder Nega, who published writings that laud the Holocaust without even bothering to differentiate between Zionism and Jewish.

However, since we know the historic ties and mutual bonds between the United States and Ethiopia, all we can say is that the authors of the State Dept report are out of touch with the issues they are talking about.

The report also claims that:

"Opposition political party leaders reported suspicions of telephone tapping and other electronic eavesdropping, and alleged government agents attempted to lure them into illegal acts by calling and pretending to be representatives of groups – designated by the country’s parliament as terrorist organizations – interested in making financial donations."

It is unfortunate that the authors of the State Dept. report do not have friends residing in Ethiopia. If they had, they would have noticed this is a common joke on the street rather than a serious claim worth stating at this kind of official document.

As everyone knows, Ethiopia is undergoing breath-taking expansion of telecom services and infrastructures. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), internet subscription grew in thousands percent each year from year 2000 to 2009. In the previous five-years, the government set ambitious targets; like, enabling every Ethiopian access telecommunication services within 5 km of her residence, increasing Tele-density for fixed line by fivefold and Tele-density for mobile by fifteen-fold, expanding the number of Internet users by more than eleven fold as well as providing 15,000 (almost all then existing) Kebeles with at least five telephones lines.

Most of the targets were met, while over-performance was reported in some areas. As a result, as of last June, the number of mobile phone subscribers stood at 17 million (from about 5 mil. in 2011) and the number of internet service users reached 2.5 million (from 100,000 in 2011), according to the data from the relevant Ministry.


This clearly demonstrates the government's commitment to expand the access and use of telecom services. This is not a government that lose sleep planning on how to hinder people from communication among each-other. However, for a poor country like Ethiopia, this kind of huge expansion cannot succeed without hitches and glitches here and there. The biggest challenge came from overload of servers and network transmitters, besides vandalism on fiber optic lines.

As a result, telephone users encountered their calls going to the wrong receiver, phone calls being cross-over by other noises and the like. The opposition politicians tried to portray this as a conspiracy, but since this happened to random ordinary citizens no one took them seriously. In fact, citizens joked mimicking them by claiming that they are being spied as well.

No sensible person would assume the government has the resource to monitor 17 million mobile phones. Many people use mobile numbers registered under another person's name and it is presumable that, like many businessmen & public figures, the opposition politicians keep more than one mobile number.

In a section "Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life", the State Dept. report claims "There continued to be reports of abuses, including killings, by the Somali Region Special Police."

However, it contradicts itself saying that:

"Scattered fighting continued between government forces – primarily regional government-backed militias – and elements of the ONLF. Clashes between ethnic groups resulted in injury and death..... The incidents included violence and hostility against humanitarian personnel, theft of assets, interference with the implementation of humanitarian programs, and restrictions on importation of personnel and goods into the country for humanitarian work. This data referred broadly to humanitarian work and were not limited to activities focusing on IDPs or refugees.

In numerous cases NGOs deferred travel to program activity sites due to insecurity. On June 13, suspected ONLF gunmen fired on a mobile health and nutrition team supported by the UN Children’s Fund in Korahe zone and seriously injured one person."

This is a clear evidence that ONLF is the primary and sole force that is blocking NGOs activities in the Somali region.

The report also claims that: “government-controlled media closely reflected the views of the government and the ruling EPRDF”.

This may be true. But we should ask “what are the views of the government and the ruling EPRDF” reflected by the public media? As anyone can check it for himself, Ethiopia's public televisions and radio stations rarely talk about ideological issues or EPRDF political programs. More than 90% of the non-entertainment programs cover development works: Infrastructure projects, expansion of basic social services, agricultural extension services, best practices and the like.

EPRDF, as a developmental party, likes and supports these issues and works. On the other-hand, the opposition parties, due to their short-sighted zero-sum politics, downplay such issues – sometimes explicitly oppose them.

Is the State Dept Report asking that the public media decrease developmental programs and replace them with celebrity gossip, as it is the case in the Western media?

The reality of Ethiopia's media landscape is much different. The growth in radio services is dazzling. Today, there are 3 MW radio services and 31 (thirty-one) FM radio services, almost half of which are privately owned. This is in addition to the 16 community radios.

No less importantly, about half of the radio services serve the so far neglected areas and marginalized communities. The total number of the languages of transmissions has reached about fifty five. The surge in the number of languages of transmission is expected to be replicated in Television transmission in the next three years when the plan to launch about 10 more TV channels and 5 regional TV stations is completed (that is in addition to the existing 5 regional televisions). Moreover, several many public-owned, private and community radio services currently are in the process of licensing and launching.

The State Dept. report claims that:

"The government periodically jammed foreign broadcasts....The state-owned Ethio Telecom was the only internet service provider in the country. The government restricted access to the internet and blocked several websites, including blogs; opposition websites; and websites of Ginbot 7, the OLF, and the ONLF."

Upon reading that, you might think the United States imposes no restrictions on the internet and wants Ethiopia to follow that.

In the first place, it is neither logical nor practical for Ethiopia to copy everything from United States.

Secondly, and more importantly, the United States implements a complex set of mechanism to filter the internet. Unlike Ethiopia, which blocks only terror-group affiliated websites, the United State restricts not only for anti-state websites but also entertainment websites to protect big corporations' interests. The reality in the United States is summarized by China's “Human rights record of the United States in 2013” report as follows:

“The U.S. government exercises massive and unrestrained information tapping on its own citizens. Edward Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, revealed a tapping program carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA), code-named PRISM. Under the program, the U.S. intelligence, by virtue of data provided by nine Internet companies, including the Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo, and other major telecom providers, tracked citizens’ private contacts and social activities recklessly (www.washingtonpost.com, June 7, 2013).

The website of The Washington Post revealed on June 7, 2013, that the NSA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were tapping directly into the central servers of some Internet companies, and users’ data, extracting their emails, chats, audio and video data, documents and photos in real time, and putting certain targets and their contacts under full surveillance. According to a government document disclosed by The New York Times on September 29, 2013, the NSA, since November 2010, had been exploiting its huge collections of U.S. citizens’ data to identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions, and other personal information. The scrutiny program, which links U.S. citizens’ phone numbers and e-mails in a “contact chain”, exposed large amount of citizens’ privacy to the government. The website of the Guardian, a British newspaper, revealed on June 6, 2013, that one of the largest U.S. telecommunications providers, the Verizon Business Network Services Inc, was required to provide to the NSA all the telephony metadata within its system, including telephone numbers, locations and call durations. Germany‘s Spiegel Online reported on September 7, 2013, that internal NSA documents showed that the U.S. intelligence has the capability of tapping user data from the iphone, devices using Android as well as BlackBerry, a system previously believed to be highly secure. The NSA developed cracking programs and tapped users’ data held on the three major smart phone operating systems, including contact lists, SMS traffic, and location information about where a user has been. The NSA is able to infiltrate the computer a person uses to sync their iphone, and the script programs enable additional access to at least 38 iphone features."

In conclusion, the state of human rights in Ethiopia is not perfect. But Ethiopia's failings and improvements should be told without malign intent of defamation. After-all, human rights is not a push-button case, it is a matter of process and institution building. Ethiopia will continue its effort to improve human rights not to please the State Dept., but in respect of the Constitution and the nation and nationalities who are the sovereign political entities of Ethiopia.

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