Chairman and honourable members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, on behalf of the members of Ethiopian National Congress, ENC, please accept our gratitude for allowing me to address this committee.
The ENC, as the Chairman has just said, is a civic association with a strong membership in Ethiopia. It works actively to share ideas on rights-based development through self-initiative. Our mission is to build a strong civic movement and an institution that promotes and advocates the democratic rights of Ethiopians, as well as advancing the principles of good governance, democracy, equality and justice.
The theme of my statement is the right of the Ethiopian people to say whether foreign aid should be provided through their government. Recent events have called into question its honesty and accountability to them, and possibly even its legitimacy. The Ethiopian Government provoked anger and demonstrations when its militia snatched ballot boxes from many of the 30,000 polling stations and frustrated vote counting in many other ways.
Well before an EU draft document on the elections was apparently leaked, peaceful demonstrators had spontaneously taken to the streets because of government attempts to change the election results. The series of demonstrations within a week following the elections continued when there was government reluctance to recount the votes and to change the members of the national election board.
On 20 May 2005, the opposition political parties lodged a formal claim of fraud by the ruling party. As members of the committee will be aware, on 8 June, the government's special crack force that had been brought onto the streets of the capital on the night of the election, killed at least 42 peaceful demonstrators. Three days later, on 11 June, as the Prime Minster labelled the related events "an indication that our democracy is working", an elected MP, Tesfaye Adane, was shot dead by police in the south.
By 22 June, the national election board, whose members were hand-picked by the Prime Minster years before, dropped investigations into the fraud without explanation. With the continuing demonstrations, many thousands were rounded up and thrown into prison. The long list of repressive measures the Prime Minister took impacted on foreign aid. On 15 June, Britain announced its withdrawal of a £36 million increase in aid to Ethiopia. On 4 July, however, the Ethiopian Prime Minister stated that Ethiopia's development partners had told him his government was doing well. He widely circulated this claim as proof of ongoing international support for what he does. Details of the government atrocities are not propaganda. As the committee is aware, reports of the reality have been made by international observers such as Ms Ana Gomes, leader of the EU monitoring team, the Carter Centre, Amnesty International and media such as the Canadian broadcasting services. Amnesty International's report of September 13 stated:
Hundreds of opposition party officials and members are being held incommunicado without charge in order to stop them attending nationwide demonstrations which had been planned for 2 October. Several of those detained have reportedly been beaten in detention and the detainees are at risk of torture or ill-treatment. There has also been widespread intimidation and harassment of suspected opposition supporters, particularly youths. Amnesty International believes that those arrested may be prisoners of conscience detained solely on account of their non-violent opinions.
On October 13 the European Parliament called on the Ethiopian Government to end the persecution and intimidation of opposition parties and to release immediately thousands of people who were arrested at an opposition demonstration in June. Undeterred, the Prime Minster accused the opposition leaders of treason four days later. There was no shortage of reasons for demonstrations. On October 11, the government dominated parliament and stripped elected MPs who boycotted the parliament of their immunity from prosecution. On 21 October, the leader of the main opposition party accused the government of killing six of its members, arresting 837 opposition members and breaking into and closing 25 branch offices. On October 29, it called for boycotts. On November 1, the police arrested the leaders of the opposition, some human rights activists and others. According to the BBC report of 17 December, prosecutors charged 131 jailed opposition leaders, reporters and aid workers with crimes ranging from treason to genocide. Among them are two workers of an aid organisation, Action Aid, and five journalists from the broadcasting service, Voice of America. What they are accused of entails the death penalty. Thousands are still in prison without trial.
Between 1 and 4 November, many peaceful demonstrators were massacred in the streets of the capital. The police shot victims in their faces and chests, and by 17 November they were reportedly killing children as young as ten years old. Truckloads of people were rounded up and taken away overnight from the capital on 4 November, and others were killed around the country by 5 November.
Police continued to shoot students. For instance on 12 January 2006 high school students in Addis Ababa, Ambo and elsewhere were reportedly shot. According to the director of Human Rights Watch, Mr. Peter Takirambudde, the Ethiopian Government is violently suppressing any form of protest and punishing suspected opposition supporters, is deepening its crackdown in Ethiopia's rural areas, far from the eyes and ears of international observers, while people are being terrorised by federal police working hand-in-glove with local officials and militias. In his web log known as Meskel Square, Andrew Heavens has been posting graphic pictures of police brutality.
Although the government announced that it released 8,000 people on 15 November, it has been difficult to this day to know exactly how many it had detained and continues to hold and arrest. Eyewitnesses have estimated anything from 25,000 to 45,000. Among those arrested by 15 November were eight journalists of the free press. In their desperation at the developments, the political prisoners started a hunger strike on 7 November. There have been international protests against, and condemnation of, the violence, including from the European Union chief election observer, the World Bank, which threatened to cut off aid, the committee to protect journalists in New York, and the International Press Institute in Vienna. By 18 January, Britain cut off all £73 million of aid to the Government of Ethiopia so as to redirect it to humanitarian agencies working in the country.
In the context of these international protests, we were grateful to hear the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan's statement on 7 February. It is encouraging to hear that Irish aid is tied to respect for human rights, and that the Minister of State supports an independent inquiry. Both are steps in the right direction. There is no direct or general budget support, and some aid is delivered to civil society organisations and via trust funds. Given the behaviour of the Ethiopian Government, these channels of aid are, in principle, a good choice.
On behalf of the ENC, I ask this committee to thank the Irish Government for supporting an independent inquiry, and to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, to withdraw support to Ethiopian Government Ministries and local authorities. We fear that channelling Irish aid to local government to provide basic services in the health, education and water sectors and to sectoral Ministries provides it with relief money. In our view, the Ethiopian Government exercises total control over Ministries down to the local level of administration. Perhaps it would clarify the point for Mr. Meles Zenawi's government if the Irish Government adjusts the strategy it followed during the past two years, and restricts aid to only civil society organisations and trust funds.
Reports from Ethiopia are that the government is preparing to dismantle the civil organizations' and their network, the Christian Relief and Development Association, CRDA. It may be wise to act to save such bodies that work directly for people in need. Withdrawing aid to Ministries does not and should not interfere with raising financial and other support for humanitarian aid from Ireland and development where truly visible. That should be able to continue.
We would also like to draw the committee's attention to the following equally pertinent concerns. Ms Ana Gomes has bravely and courageously protested at the election-related atrocities. However, she pleads what may be termed "technical difficulties" for not having so far released the EU observer mission's report. Ethiopians wonder when the report will see the light of day, as chapter 19.3 of the handbook for the EU election observation mission had led them to expect the report to be published within one month of the elections. Will the Irish Government pursue this matter at EU level?
The European Parliament has called for effective actions on the part of the Council and the Commission. We cannot express enough gratitude that the Minister for State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, and other EU Ministers support establishing an independent inquiry into the human rights abuses. Among the Parliament's other recommended actions are targeting sanctions against senior officials of the Ethiopian Government, and reconsidering Ethiopia's status within the EU ACP partnership framework. If possible, these vital issues should be addressed at the coming meeting of the Council during the first few days of March.
Perhaps I should point out that in Ethiopia, demanding justice through peaceful demonstrations is very much a part of tradition. The demonstrations following the elections were spontaneous rather than organised by opposition political parties. The huge and responsible turn-out on election day was expressive of the Ethiopian tradition of public demonstrations concerned with rights, justice and public duty. Traditionally, demonstrators were treated peacefully and respectfully by authorities. Ethiopians are, therefore, highly sensitive to basic human rights and the rule of law, which they refer to as the "God of Law". They monitor and listen to local language broadcasts to Ethiopia and exchange information on what donors say and do. Supporting them by addressing the crucial concerns just mentioned would greatly help resolve the impasse in the political scene in their country. Nothing would be more pertinent to the development of goodwill and future relations between Ireland and the people of Ethiopia. I thank the committee.