Human Rights in Jeopardy

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Part IV in a series. Read Parts III and III.

by Jonathan Ewing

There are still quite a lot of companies interested in investing in the region, but all are being quite cautious. Heinrich believes that any company operating in an area of social and political tension can never hope to be neutral actors. Their presence and activities will always have an impact on the host community and society in general. The Ogaden, he says, is a prime example.

Indeed, Paul Hebert, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia from 2003-2008, believes the presence of the oil companies and their requirements for increased security following the ONLF attack in 2007 had made it much more difficult for the United Nations and other organizations to provide humanitarian assistance. “The oil companies were not the only force behind these kinds of difficulties, but they played a role almost as significant as the government or the ONLF in fueling the conflict Hebert says. “Their mere presence aggravatedthe situation at a critical time because of their de-facto alliance with the government as it continued its counterinsurgency campaign.”

Three months after the ONLF’s attack on Abole in April 2007, Hebert began receiving reports from a growing number of non-governmental organizations and locals in the region. The army, he read, had embarked on a vigorous counter-insurgency campaign against the ONLF. “I think [the government was] humiliated by the attack and that was why it overreacted, striking back so heavily. They wanted to show the oil industry that they had control of the region,” he says. By the middle of July, Hebert and his UN staff were becoming seriously concerned about the humanitarian situation. Food aid was not getting through, livestock markets were being closed, nutrition was a growing problem and people were beginning to suffer tremendously, according to Hebert and a senior western diplomat in Addis Ababa.

In a confidential report to his superiors, Hebert said that news was arriving at the UN mission of allegations of grave human rights violations including rape, arbitrary arrest and detention, extra-judicial execution, denial of rights to food, demolition of houses and disappearances of people. Reports were so extreme that he requested a meeting with the president of the Somali Regional State, Abdullahi Hassan.

“The meeting was cordial, but tense, and Hassan was very, very defensive,” Hebert recalls, adding that “the government was aware of the situation, but that they attributed the problems to drought, not fighting. They also defended the trade embargo which effectively closed cross-border trade with Somalia, Kenya and Somaliland, were only a short-term phenomenon, and that they were an “acceptable price” to pay to wean the local population from contraband, Hebert reported. Hebert then requested that the United Nations be allowed to undertake a mission to assess the situation, which got underway near the end of August and ran through the first week of September 2007. UN investigators would examine conditions from the capital of the Somali Regional State to the center of the region.

“Our plan was to run a mission that included a humanitarian as well as a human rights assessment,” he says. But the meeting with Omar was heating up, and becoming increasingly edgy. “I assured [him] that our mission would merely be about assessing the effect of this fighting on the civilian population and that we weren’t interested in assigning blame,” Hebert recalls. After explaining his objective, Omar stood and calmly accused two of Hebert’s national staff—Ethiopian UN workers who had been hired locally—of being members of the ONLF.

“This kind of accusation was very serious, and I asked [Omar and his staff] for proof, which they said they had, but which they declined to share,” he says. “We learned later that other members of the staff were threatened and warned by federal police and security against working for the UN and participating in the mission. It was my feeling at the time that the government was bluffing, but I also knew that I had no way to protect them if push came to shove, because they were national staff—meaning they were citizens of Ethiopia and bound by Ethiopian law.”

The government delayed, and finally, after about 10 days, approved the UN mission. Hebert’s plan at the time, three years ago, was to travel south from Jijiga, and on into the heart of the Somali region of Ethiopia. He would visit a number of villages and towns along the Jijiga-Gode road in an attempt to get an idea of what was happening in the five geographical zones— Degehabur, Fik, Gode, Korahe and Warder— where military activity was ongoing. The convoy did not, however, visit the areas around Shilabo, which included towns and villages that were later found to have been hardest hit in the fighting. In many of the towns, people told the UN assessment team that government soldiers and security had only recently passed through, warning people that they should say nothing negative to the UN team.

“We knew, of course, that this must have stopped some people from talking to us, but others went ahead,” Hebert recalls. “We couldn’t corroborate all of the information. But the pattern held that people were being abused and then coerced by the government into keeping their mouths shut. Food distribution, we later found out, was staged. After we left, authorities went and took all of the food back.”

The mission found large numbers of Ethiopian troops camped in nearly all the towns and villages they visited. In most of their interviews with civilians, Hebert and his team encountered a pervasive fear for individual security. Many expressed the frustration of being caught between the Ethiopian military and the ONLF. This conflict was bringing their families to the brink of destitution. In the end, Hebert and his team finished the mission and delivered the final report. The Ethiopian government felt it was biased, but agreed to let Hebert publish the report without official opposition.

 “We also produced a human rights report on the alleged beatings and torture, which the government asked us not to release publicly. The government said they would accept the humanitarian report, but if we released both the humanitarian and human rights report, they would reject both. So it was basically a threat,” he says. The human rights report was never issued.

Improvements…At the Margins

Some, in the UN and other humanitarian organizations, believe that the situation in the Ogaden has improved—but only marginally, and with progress best characterized as two steps forward, one step back. The poor conditions of refugees arriving in Kenya, and in great numbers, suggest that the fighting continues. Earlier this year, the ONLF claimed to have strengthened to the point where it was able to take over the Hilala natural gas field in eastern Ogaden, operated by Petronas—a claim rejected by the Ethiopian government.

Vincent Lelei took over in Ethiopia after Hebert retired from the United Nations. Humanitarian access to the Ogaden region is granted, he says, on a case-by case basis after extensive discussions with the government, which all too often says it must consider the entire scope of issues that need to be managed in a particular area. And most often, the determining issues are security-related.

This “means that we are able to deliver assistance, but not as effectively as we would wish to. We have to reduce our expectations at every stage,” says Lelei. “We continue to work with the government in providing assistance, but fundamentally this is the issue: They want to make sure that humanitarian assistance goes to the individuals who are supposed to receive aid. And they want to make sure that humanitarian assistance in the region is not given to the people that the government is convinced are a problem, which is the people who the government is engaged in armed combat with—and that is the Ogaden National Liberation Front.” As for the oil companies, they do not, indeed have never, provided any meaningful humanitarian assistance to the villages where they are, each day, changing the way of life. The beatings and the killings continue.

Situation Impossible

One 41-year-old father of eight from the Ogaden now lives in the Ifo refugee camp in Kenya, north of the city of Garissa. Back home, he was a goat herder, but later took on odd jobs to support his family. His situation, he says, was impossible. Like most people, he felt as if he were being used.

In December 2002, he was beaten by the ONLF for not joining the militia to fight the Ethiopian government. In 2006, he was beaten by local militia and police for working with Médeçins Sans Frontières. He was beaten again that year, this time by the government, he says, because he worked with members of a U.S. Army detachment, helping to build a watering area for the local herders and their animals. The police arrested him, took him to their barracks and tortured him.

“I was placed between two army trucks and tied—one arm to each truck. A white, shining sword was produced and placed at my neck [and I was asked]: ‘What did you tell the Americans?’” Probably the same story he would tell the oil companies if he could. The only real way to change patterns that are so deeply engraved in the customs and practices of a government or a people is to hurt them profoundly. And the only effective way that may be accomplished is to take away the lubricant that makes it all possible—revenue from the only item of value this poor land has to barter and that the world wants at all: oil. The oil companies, however, remain. And their funds continue to flow.

Jonathan Ewing is a Stockholm-based investigative reporter who traveled to East Africa on a grant from the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, researching the relationship between the government of Ethiopia, the separatist rebels, the petroleum industry and the global interests they represent.

Picture via Flickr, by gara.

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