Ethiopia's donors asked to condemn 'attack'

A new report says the Ethiopian government is waging "a co-ordinated and sustained attack" against its opponents ahead of May elections and countries like Canada that send aid to Ethiopia should condemn it.

The Ethiopian government is waging "a co-ordinated and sustained attack" against its opponents ahead of May elections and countries like Canada that send aid to Ethiopia should condemn it, a new report says.

Georgette Gagnon, the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa division, released her group's report in Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday. ((Human Rights Watch))

"Ethiopians, millions of them, are unable to speak freely, organize political activities, challenge their government's policies, either through peaceful protest, voting, or publicizing their views without fear of reprisal," said Georgette Gagnon, the executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, speaking at the report's release in Nairobi, Kenya, on Wednesday.

She slammed the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front for having "systematically punished opposition supporters" since it was elected in 2005 and called on foreign governments to step up and voice their concern.

If foreign governments do not speak before the May 23 elections, "election day is likely to be ... a veneer of democratic pretension hiding a repressive state apparatus," the report said.

Canada is 4th-largest donor

Canada contributed up $132 million in aid to Ethiopia in 2007-2008, according to the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA, making it the fourth-largest donor to the eastern African nation. One-third of Ethiopia's government expenditures come from foreign assistance, according to Human Rights Watch.

The Canadian International Development Agency provided aid to Ethiopia worth $132 million in 2007-2008. ((Patti Gower/ACDI-CIDA))

Much of that aid is being used by the government to oppress, rather than help, the Ethiopian people, said the non-profit organization, which investigates human rights abuses worldwide.

The government has used "the full weight of its power" to silence its critics, the group said, including closing an independent newspaper in December and jamming the local language programming of Voice of America in February. In 2008, it also imprisoned opposition leader Birtukan Midekssa, of the Unity for Justice and Democracy Party.

Activists and other journalists have fled the country as a result, it said.

Call to action for foreign donors

Despite such actions, the country's principal foreign donors, including the World Bank, United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Canada, have been "very timid in their criticisms of Ethiopia's deteriorating human rights situation," Human Rights Watch said.

"Ethiopia's foreign backers should break their silence and condemn the climate of fear in Ethiopia," Gagnon said.

The group also called on the Ethiopian government to release all political prisoners, including Midekssa, end attacks against opposition members, journalists and civil society, and allow independent groups to investigate and report abuses publicly.

Ethiopia's ruling party came to power in 2005, when it won 327 seats in the country's 547-seat house. The party went on to win 99.9 per cent of the vote in local elections in April 2008, a landslide that allowed it to consolidate its control over local administrations and rule "with an iron grip," according to Human Rights Watch.

The group interviewed more than 200 people during 15 weeks of research in Ethiopia for its report, entitled One Hundred Ways of Putting Pressure: Violations of Freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia.

Interviews were conducted with farmers, teachers, civil servants, activists, opposition and government officials, as well as foreign diplomats and aid officials.

Ethiopia's elections will be held May 23.