South Africa’s Ogaden refugees have requested the police, the prosecuting authority and the International Criminal Court to investigate damning allegations of human rights abuses against the Ethiopian government. The allegations are not new, but the legal action may force South African officials to take a more proactive stance against human rights abuses in Africa.
Caught in the crossfire between rebels of the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front and Ethiopian troops, the Ogaden community in western Ethiopia live in constant fear for their lives, their livelihoods and their homes. Those lucky enough to have made it out of the Ogaden list extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, rape, torture, enforced disappearances, destruction of livelihoods and the obliteration of entire villages among the litany of crimes, they say, the Ethiopian armed forces commit with impunity.
The Ethiopian government, a great beneficiary of international aid is also alleged to have diverted food aid from intended beneficiaries suffering from a severe drought in the Ogaden in 2009. Researchers say people in the region live a virtual stone-age existence, eking out what life and living they are allowed in one of the most poorly developed territories in Ethiopia.
For over 100 years, the Ogaden, Ethiopia’s Somali region, has been a locus of conflict. Although geographically within Ethiopia, the Ogaden’s ethnic Somali population remains culturally and economically intertwined with neighbouring Somalia. Conflicts outside of Ethiopia itself have invariably spilt over into the Ogaden, but it was only in April 2007 that international attention was apportioned to the conflict after a low-intensity skirmish between the Ethiopian government and an insurgency movement called the Ogaden National Liberation Front made international news. The rebels attacked an oil site in Somali regional state, in southeast Ethiopia, capturing and killing more than 70 Chinese and Ethiopian oil workers as well as scores of Ethiopian soldiers. The response from the Ethiopian government was brutal.
Shukri Husen Abdi, an Ogaden refugee in Johannesburg says, “I cannot find the words to explain what happened to me.” Minutes earlier, tears streamed down Abdi’s face as she listened to her compatriot Ardo Abdulahi Mahomed tell a harrowing tale of displacement, detention and torture at the hands of the Ethiopian armed forces. Mahomed remains cold, unmoved by her own harrowing words. She betrays none of the raw emotion that has overtaken Abdi. Instead, I sense exhaustion within her. It is as though she has tired of feeling.
As she recounts the rapes she suffered during military detention, I struggle to keep eye contact with her. My body is still fumbling for an adequate response. As I scribble in my notebook, she goes on to speak about the other forms of torture meted out to her. After months in detention she escaped the prison, the Ogaden and the cruel life she once knew. She had long ago lost track of her family, her children were all missing, or dead, her village was no more. She travelled through six countries until she arrived in South Africa. Now, she says, she hopes the legal action taken against the Ethiopian government by her community will help her find her children.
Later on, a Somali journalist would ask the assembled members of the Ogaden community and their legal representation if they thought it was realistic to charge senior Ethiopian officials with a litany of crimes, all the way from South Africa. Afzal Abba, attorney for the Ogaden community in South Africa, offered a sobering response, “The purpose of this is to stop the atrocities”.
There is scant hope left for victims like these women, but the international legal system has offered them an avenue of redress.
Abba lodged a whopping 700-page complaint against the Ethiopian government with the commissioner of police, the head of the directorate of priority crimes investigation unit and the director of public prosecutions. Abba says the complaint details “incontrovertible evidence” of human rights abuses and war crimes on the part of the Ethiopian government. It is unclear if Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been implicated in the complaint as names of alleged perpetrators have been withheld while the investigation continues.
In legalese the complaint has five principal aims:
1. Inform the South African police services and the prosecuting authority, as well as the International Criminal Court that an international crime has been committed in Ogaden including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, and that these crimes continue to be committed.
2. Request the South African authorities to exercise jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute the offenders under the implementation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act 27 of 2002 if the offender is found within South Africa.
3. Request the South African authorities to seek to obtain the presence of an offender by extradition.
4. Inform and request the South African prosecuting authority that if they are unable to exercise jurisdiction because of absence of an offender, as party to the Rome Statute they are legally obliged to refer the complaint to the ICC.
5. To request the ICC prosecutor to initiate an investigation proprio motu- under Article 15 of the Rome Statute of the ICC into war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Hennie Strydom, an international law expert at the University of Johannesburg, says the legal action brought against the Ethiopian government will force the South African government to confront allegations of Ethiopian human rights abuses more stringently. Spokesman for South Africa’s department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco), Clayson Monyela, however, declined to comment on the complaint, saying it amounted to an internal dispute among Ethiopians.
The press statement, released on Tuesday, alleges that about 20,000 Ogaden citizens are now languishing in 200 different jails, most of them in unknown Ethiopian military detention camps. While civilian authorities generally maintained effective control of the security forces, there were numerous instances in which elements within those forces acted independently of government authority. And, while serious allegations of human rights abuses and indeed even war crimes certainly do exist, the Ogaden rebel insurgency, the ONLF, has been similarly culpable.
Leslie Lefkow, deputy director of the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch told Daily Maverick, “In 2008 Human Rights Watch published a major report describing serious abuses by both sides – the Ethiopian government and the ONLF – in the region. Unfortunately, since the publication of the report, the government has effectively closed access to the region for any independent investigators, including the media. While there has been a general clampdown on the independent media, the political opposition and civil society in Ethiopia, the restrictions on access to the Ogaden area have been particularly harsh.”
Lisa Thomas, programme coordinator at the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation that has also taken up the plight of the Ogaden people says, “It is a very tragic situation. Abuse is ongoing and crucially the afflicted people are cut off from the international community and assistance.
“The region is cut off,” Thomas stresses. “Aid agencies and independent human rights organisations have no access to the Ogaden.”
When I first met a refugee from the Ogaden in South Africa, a young, aspiring journalist at the University of Johannesburg, I was astounded at the fierceness of his resolve to return to the Ogaden to tell the stories of the Ogaden. “If I have to die telling the story, then I will die. I am ready to,” he said. The Ogaden has been cut off from the outside world, its stories have been contained in the tales of those who make it out of the Ogaden. There is the drive to break those barriers to show the world the uglier face of Meles Zenawi’s legacy in Ethiopia.
Several attempts to reach Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon for comment were unsuccessful, but Mursan Oumer, another Ethiopian government communication affairs officer, told Al Jazeera he was not aware of the complaints lodged in South Africa.
The Ethiopian government’s has denied reports of abuses in 2007, disparage sources and actively restrict or control access to the region by journalists, human rights groups and aid organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Medecins sans Frontiers.
When confronted with the tales of horror from the Ogaden, the Ethiopian government has been dismissive. Instead, it has claimed, particularly to an international audience, that insecurity in the region is the work of Eritrean-backed ‘terrorists’ who seek to destabilise Ethiopia. There is little doubt that the political dynamics within the Ogaden are inextricably entwined with regional dynamics. They are certainly influenced by the continuing hostility between Eritrea and Ethiopia as well as the ever-unfolding failure of Somalia. Human Rights Watch believes, “The application of terrorist rhetoric to the internal conflict with the ONLF, however, appears designed mainly to attract support from the US as part of the ‘war on terror’.”
It is in the name of fighting terror that Ethiopia enacted the restrictive Anti-Terrorism Proclamation in 2009. So far, it has been used to justify arrests of both journalists and members of the political opposition. In June 2011 the Ethiopian House of Federations officially proscribed two armed groups – the ONLF and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and one opposition party, Ginbot 7 – labeling them terrorist organisations. The ONLF is certainly not blameless, but invoking this discourse of national defence against terror offers sham accountability from the Ethiopian armed forces operating in the Ogaden.
Last Wednesday Zenawi lashed out at human rights and press freedom groups which had criticised implementation of Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism law. He insisted the law was not being misused to further political ends. He cited the example of two Swedish journalists who were arrested in the company of ONLF rebels late last year in the Ogaden. The journalists had sneaked into the region to investigate reports of human rights abuses. They were found guilty of supporting terrorism and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
“The government gave a small statement that such people have been put [in] prison,” Zenawi said. “The next day the campaign was launched, ‘Free press, innocent people with no issue at all!’. They just give pronouncements before the case has gone to court, before evidence has been heard. The pronouncement was there; the government is the criminal and the people are innocent.”
This time as legal action against Zenawi’s government is pursued in South Africa and The Hague, Zenawi may well find himself and his government criminalised by a hapless people caught in an unrelenting crossfire.
By KHADIJA PATEL.