washingtonpost.com  > World > Columnists > Nora Boustany

Stumbling Blocks and a Move to Help Ethiopia's Young Democracy

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page A14

As democratic currents flow through the nearby Middle East, Ethiopia is trying to overcome its own hurdles as a nascent democracy.

Government-backed killings of opposition party members, as well as officially sanctioned detentions, disappearances and attacks, have marred the run-up to national legislative elections in May and have compromised the democratic process that began with free elections in 2000.

Read Nora Boustany's previous Diplomatic Dispatches columns.

And the violence is beginning to resonate in Washington.

A major Human Rights Watch report issued in January charged the Ethiopian government with continuing to "deny many of its citizens' basic human rights."

Describing instances of police brutality, torture and illegal detention, the report also accused the government of harassing and in some cases killing political foes.

The U.S. State Department human rights report released on Monday echoed those charges, and both documents cited harassment of and restrictions on independent journalists and publishers.

According to Human Rights Watch, "The continuous intolerance of dissent on the part of many officials raises serious concerns as to whether opposition candidates will be able to contest [the May 15] poll in an environment free of fear."

Last week, a bipartisan House resolution was introduced by Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and Ed Royce (R-Calif.), vice chairman of the International Relations subcommittee on Africa, urging the government in Addis Ababa to address the obstacles to the democratic process. The legislation could be debated in coming weeks.

"I have introduced HR 935, legislation that offers Ethiopia the guidance, assistance and tools it needs to improve its national electoral system," Honda said in a letter to colleagues. "The bill authorizes funding for USAID to educate Ethiopians about their democratic rights and responsibilities."

"We really think it is going to be passed soon," said Mesfin Mekonon, the Washington representative for the Ethiopian-American Council. Mekonon has worked for months to get the attention of American legislators.

U.S. military personnel based in Djibouti trained an Ethiopian army division in counter-terrorism two years ago; there are suspicions that extremist Islamic groups are hiding near the Somalia-Ethiopia border.

Details of Darfur Destruction

Two international humanitarian organizations have brought back dramatic reports from Sudan's embattled Darfur region, where they detailed the wanton destruction of village life and said that the health, nourishment and safety of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees across the border in Chad remain in jeopardy.

A team from one group, Physicians for Human Rights, just returned from a three-week assessment in Darfur and released a report Monday that documented what it called the intentional destruction of villagers' livelihoods. The destruction included community support, economic structures, livestock, food production, wells and farming capacity, in addition to huts and homes that were burned to empty shells.

"What we have tried to do is document what they lost and evaluate what they need to go back. We have no magic formula, but the way things are now, they cannot go back there to live," John Heffernan, a spokesman for the human rights group, said in an interview Monday.

Of the 13,000 residents of Furawiya, a once-prosperous village in North Darfur about 100 miles from Chad, Heffernan said there were 8,000 survivors, now living in camps in Chad with nothing to return to. He said he had conducted extensive interviews with the refugees and visited their village.

Heffernan called Furawiya a formerly "vibrant community" on which Darfurians depended for "trade, social and financial exchange, maintenance of livestock" and resources for maintaining hospitals and schools.

"If every household in this one village alone had an average of two fully grown camels valued at a minimum of $500, the loss in Furawiya of camels would be more than $2.5 million," the group's report said.

According to one resident who never left the village, nearly all the pre-war livestock was lost. The report quoted him as saying that 40 percent of the animals died in attacks, 20 percent were stolen or eaten by marauding Arab militia forces and the rest died of thirst, lack of fodder or neglect on the way to Chad.

According to Refugees International, another aid organization, security is still too shaky in Darfur to allow internally displaced persons to return to their villages ahead of the planting season in June and July. The organization said that food shortages extended far beyond the war-ravaged areas and that soldiers from the African Union military monitoring mission had to airlift food to some areas.

While the more than 3,000-strong African force is being credited for saving lives, Refugees International recommended a reinforcement of that mission with manpower, airfields, roads and infrastructure.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company