Infuriated by allegations in the West of human rights violations and persecution of Christians in Ethiopia, the military government here has reacted with bitter attacks on the "narrow" Western definition of rights. It has charged that the issues are being used to discredit the Ethiopian revolution.
The controversy raises some fundamental questions about the meaning of human rights at a time of revolutionary change that countries like Ethiopia and Iran are undergoing.
Ethiopia is one of nine countries that have been singled out by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights because of persistent allegations of major rights violations.
The military government argues that it has done more in five years for the social and economic advancement of the vast majority of Ethiopians, namely the peasants, than anything done during the 2,000 years of monarchy that ended with the late emperor Haile Selassie's overthrow in September 1974.
The issue came to a head early last month in Geneva, where a U.N. Human Rights Commission aired a report of the London-based organization Amnesty International on the situation in war-ravaged Ethiopia since the onset of the revolution.
Amnesty, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, has accused the provisional military government of "a consistent pattern of flagrant violations of fundamental human rights" ever since it came to pwer.
Ironically, the Amnesty International report was only published last November, long after the situation had begun to improve andd when thosands of political prisoners were being released from Addis Ababa jails.
Subsequently, there has been a spate of reports from Protestant churches in Western Europe, alleging that the Ethipian government is persecuting Christians.
Church and Western diplomatic sources here, however, say the reports have vastly exaggerated a number of local instances of church-state conflict. The say there is no evidence of a government attempt either to limit religious freedom or to crush the already politically emasculated Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Since the revolution began, there has been an enormous amount of blooshed as royalists and civilian leftists battled with the military for control of the country and Somali and Eritream separatists struggled to secede from the crumbling 2,000-year-old empire.
Tens of thousands have been killed in half a dozen internal and external conflicts and human rights have taken a battering from all sides.
The country has gone through periods of "red terror" and "white terror" as pro- and antimilitary factions organized assassin squads and killed off each other's supporters in the streets of the capital and other towns.
In its report, Amnesty International charged among other things that the military government is still holding at least 360 political prisoners without trial. Some, it said, have been in prison for more than four years.
It also accused the government of carrying out "large numbers of summary executions and political killings," including an estimated 5,000 deaths during the height of the "red terror" from December 1977 to February 1978, when it said Ethiopian jails held 30,000 political prisoners.
Many of the prisoners, it alleged, were subjected to "beatings, electric shocks and immersion in hot oil" as well as "sexual torture."
The report lays virtually all the blame for violations of human rights on the government and does not deal with similar excesses by its opponents of the left and right. But the government has based its critcism of the Amnesty International campaign on other grounds.
It maintains that the Ethiopian revolution has been committed from the start to a "much broader" definition of human rights, namely "the right to be genuinely free from all types of oppression and exploitation" and the right of equality "in all respects" and not just in its "legalistic terms."
In fact, there is virtual consensus among Western aid donors andd economists here that general conditions for Ethiopia's peasants, who constitute 90 percent of the population, have vastly improved since the revolution and the sweeping land reform enacted in 1975.
The reform did away with feudal rights that obliged the peasants to turn over a much as 50 percent of their crops to landlords and returned the land to the peasants' control.
In a speech to U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Ethiopia's ambassador, Taddese Terrefe called Amnesty International a "tool of imperialists" and accused it of upholding "double standards" by its indifference in the past to the plight of blacks and Indians in the United States as well as to that of Vietnamese victims of American bombing.
He also said the human rights organization had maintained "an eloquent silence" during the 1973-74 famine in Ethiopia under the emperor, who allowed several hundred thousand Ethiopians to die of hunger and thus be denied "the most basic of human rights."
"I need hardly add that both by its commission and omissions Amnesty International has evidently lost any semblance of credibility in all revolutionary countries," the Thiopian ambassador added.
Still, the Ethiopian government has taken measures in the past six months to correct the abuse of "legalistic" rights, ending its own "red terror," emptying neighborhood jails here in the capital of thousands of minor political prisoners, curbing the excesses of local defense squads charged with maintaining law and order in the cities and generally encouraging a return to normality.
It still has not said what it plans to do with more than 300 prisoners held since the first months of the revolution, most of them high officials of the old government.
Meanwhile, various church and diplomatic sources here say reports since January in the Western press of religious persecution are basically untrue and stem from a spate of isolated local incidents.
"Reports about religious persecution in Ethiopia are unfounded," said Rev. Kevin Doheny, a top official in the Catholic Church secretariat here. "The central government insists on freedom of religion and in my mind is genuine in its affirmation of this.
There are more people going to church nowadays than ever before and without any fear."
At the government's behest, top officials of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church also have made similar public denials of reports of religious persecution. The Coptic Church, disestablished by the revolution and with most of its holdings nationalized, nonetheless still thrives in the countryside as well as here in the countryside as well as here in the capital where several new churches are being built.