Global Policy Forum

Why Turn a Blind Eye to Tyranny?

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By Chris Albin-Lackey*

International Herald Tribune
July 4, 2005

When people around the world came together on Saturday for the Live 8 concerts, they were hoping to recapture the magic of "the day that rock 'n' roll changed the world" at Live Aid in 1985. Twenty years later, Ethiopia has again emerged as a potent symbol - not only of the cause behind the concert, but also of the consequences of oversimplifying the debate on aid to Africa.

As famine decimated Ethiopia in 1985, Live Aid brought together rock stars on two different continents for a huge concert aimed at mobilizing worldwide concern. The concert was watched by 1.5 billion people worldwide and raised more than $100 million for its cause. But Live Aid was not without its critics. At the time, Ethiopia was governed by a military regime called the Derg, whose brutal "development" policies were largely responsible for bringing about the famine in the first place. Some argued that Live Aid's relief effort displayed dangerous naïveté about the political consequences of working with a government that was bent on keeping its people under its heel.

Today, supporters of Live 8 rightly point out that the campaign this time around promotes a far more sophisticated agenda by attacking the root causes of poverty rather than asking for handouts to alleviate it. This new approach to poverty is at the center of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Commission for Africa, which has proposed a raft of ambitious initiatives aimed at making real headway against poverty across the continent. The only African leader on the commission, and the most articulate champion of its agenda, is Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi.

Meles's prominent role on the commission aptly symbolizes how donor policy toward Africa has matured in the past 20 years. In the 1980s, Live Aid's poster child was a starving, half-naked Ethiopian toddler, a symbol of African helplessness and misery. Live 8 promises to present a much more inspiring and nuanced picture of Africa as a continent struggling to pull itself up by its own bootstraps under the leadership of dynamic, thoughtful leaders like Meles. The problem with taking Meles as a symbol of a promising but tragically underfunded African renaissance is that his government has amassed an appalling human rights record during its 14 years in power. While this government is an improvement over its brutal predecessor, its human rights record is nonetheless extremely grim.

In Ethiopia's most populous region, Oromia, the government routinely subjects its critics to harassment, imprisonment and torture. Police and military officials often imprison such people on charges of involvement with "anti-peace" or even "anti-people" groups, but convictions and even trials are rare. After a low-level insurgency broke out in the remote Gambella region two years ago, the Ethiopian military responded by killing, raping and torturing hundreds of indigenous Anuak civilians.

Meles's government has never publicly acknowledged the need to correct or even investigate any of these abuses. It has also consistently refused to tolerate any sort of human-rights related criticism, dismissing even the most recent human rights report by its largest donor, the U.S. government, as "lies."

Today, international discussions of aid policy center on the theme of accountability. Nonetheless, donor governments have generally refused to use even nonhumanitarian aid as leverage to demand accountability for human rights abuses in Ethiopia. Some Western diplomats claim that they are conducting "quiet diplomacy" with Ethiopia, even as they lambaste South Africa for taking a similar approach with Zimbabwe. The contradictions inherent in this approach to Ethiopia burst out into the open last month. Just after donors heralded recent parliamentary elections as evidence of Ethiopia's progress toward democracy, its security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Addis Ababa, killing at least 36 people and wounding more than 100. Thousands more were arrested and thrown into military detention facilities, and hundreds still remain in illegal detention today.

Faced with abuses too visible and massive to ignore, donors spoke out with unusual vigor; Britain even suspended a planned increase in aid to the Ethiopian government. But punishing Meles for his most recent transgressions is not enough. The Group of 8 leaders meeting this week should take Ethiopia's example as a reminder that their efforts to fight poverty in Africa must be accompanied by an equally serious effort to address the human rights abuses responsible for so much of the continent's misery.

About the Author: Chris Albin-Lackey is the Sandler fellow at Human Rights Watch, where he covers Ethiopia.

 

 

 
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