Current Situation in Ethiopia: Presentation.

I welcome Ms Tsehai Berhane-Selassie, chairperson of the Ethiopian National Congress, and her husband, Mr. Peter Esmond. Ms Berhane-Selassie has been living in Ireland for several years. The Ethiopian National Congress, ENC, is a worldwide civic movement which promotes civic rights and peaceful processes in Ethiopia. We last met Ms Berhane-Selassie when she accompanied Dr. Berhanu Nega, vice chairperson of the main Ethiopian opposition party, to a meeting last summer. We are pleased to have this opportunity to talk to her again, particularly at this important time in Ethiopia when political difficulties are, once again, a cause of deep concern for the international community.

I thank Ms Berhane-Selassie for attending the joint committee and I invite her to make her presentation.

Ms Tsehai Berhane-Selassie

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.

I welcome Ms Berhane-Selassie. We met last June or July when Dr. Berhanu Nega was with her. Could she tell us on a personal level the current position regarding Dr. Nega, who met me, the Chairman and other members of this committee? Many groups that have an input into developments in Ethiopia have told us that if direct aid is affected by Irish Government sanctions the victims will be those most in need of support and help. Although we got the impression that aid to local government and sectoral Ministries is not influenced by the Ethiopian Government, Ms Berhane-Selassie said the hand of Government extends to the local governments and sectoral groups. Could Ms Berhane-Selassie elaborate on that? If these local government groups do not receive aid from Ireland, if the NGOs and civil organisations are disbanded, where stands the local population and its appalling situation? What is Ms Berhane-Selassie's view of the non-publication of the report by Ms Ana Gomes? She mentioned technical difficulties.

We are concerned about where we go from here. Different points of view have been expressed and given the situation one can understand that. We are interested in how to restore peace. People who were there told us that, for example, the 1995 elections were poor, the 2000 elections were better and the way these elections were conducted was the best so far. The problems arose afterwards with some of the counts. Perhaps the international community was not sufficiently prepared to be involved in the counts and observe the follow-through. Ethiopia was beginning to make progress and we would like that to continue. People are interested in investing there. If there is no investment by external sources, it will have damaging effects, particularly on those in need of jobs and proper opportunities. Irish Aid and Development Cooperation Ireland have undertaken some excellent projects in the country which we have seen. Such projects have changed people's way of life. They are now able to send their children to school and have a small income above the level of subsistence. Some wonderful pilot projects have been undertaken, for instance, water management projects, which can be replicated in other parts of the country. We know there was a certain degree of envy about the fact that projects had been undertaken in Tigré, for example. People in the south were asking why projects were not being undertaken there. The next step is to undertake such projects in other parts of the country.

How can we best move forward? We were anxious to speak to both sides in finding a solution before the end of April. We would welcome the delegates' views.

I may have to leave to attend the Order of Business. I am in possession on the Social Welfare Law Reform and Pensions Bill.

In that case the Deputy may comment now.

It was useful for the committee to hear the presentation, for which I thank the delegates. It is in everybody's interests that the principle of impunity for the actions described should not be accepted. For this reason, it was suggested at previous committee hearings that it was important that the Government should be represented at the trials taking place.

A second point is that we face a real difficulty as regards the many submissions we have received. I agree with the Chairman that the EU report on the elections should be published. We have received presentations on the role played by Ms Ana Gomes in the elections and they are confusing. It was suggested to the committee in previous submissions that the announcement of the results from Addis Ababa to the effect that they were heading in a particular direction was not covered in the manual governing the observation of elections. When we seek to reconcile the presentations we have received, perhaps the Chairman will consider that it would be useful for members to have a copy of the EU handbook as this would enable us to see the degree to which there was compliance.

It is important that we listen carefully and seek to follow on from the reports of the international human rights organisations. For example, I am confused about the Carter Institute, with which I am familiar. It expressed its satisfaction with the elections, although it condemned the reaction to the results but perhaps I am wrong in that I am speaking from memory. On the issue of an inquiry, I agree but will go further and say we have an international legal responsibility as regards impunity.

The fundamental difficulty is that we are in agreement that Irish aid should go primarily to local and sectoral organisations. We need to be assured that in the areas of health, education and so forth, Ethiopians are not paying the cost of all that has happened. As the Chairman said, the committee's report on Ethiopia shows that money has been well spent in a way that has changed people's prospects. It would be a very serious issue if any of that money were withdrawn.

In the view of Ms Berhane-Selassie, who won the election? As a committee that has responsibility for, among other things, an aid relationship, how can we be assured that the projects that are of the most benefit to those most in need are not disrupted? These are practical questions. I appreciate Ms Berhane-Selassie's description of the situation in terms of civilians, representatives of civil society and journalists, in addition to what she said on the rights and legal issues. What has been said is valuable and I suggest that the situation should be monitored through the legal process.

Apart from a nominal State representation at these trials we should ask other international human rights organisations, including our own Human Rights Commission, to be there in an independent capacity. The most important question is how we move on from here. I thank Ms Berhane-Selassie for her presentation.

Perhaps the witness would like to make a response, after which other members may contribute.

Ms Berhane-Selassie

I will take the questions as they were asked, as this would also make sense in terms of sequencing what has been going on in Ethiopia and what we should be thinking of asking from Ireland.

Dr. Berhanu Nega is still in prison. He is one of those prisoners who have been selected for special treatment in prison. He is among a group that has been separated from the rest of the prisoners on the grounds of being dangerous. He has been put in a separate place together with several other prisoners and has received medical attention for damage to his eyesight.

Dr. Berhanu Nega has been brought to court along with the others and charged but they have rejected the authority of the court to judge them. Although they have rejected representations by the prosecutors, as far as the government is concerned, their case is going ahead. The judge has had difficulty appointing prosecutors. The government has disbanded the National Lawyers Association because it wanted to represent them. There is a great deal of controversy around the representation of these prisoners, what will happen in the court and so on.

Have specific charges been levelled against him?

Ms Berhane-Selassie

I am not clear on that. Mr. Haylu Shawl and Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam are both charged with treason. They are also accused of inciting demonstrators and seeking to overthrow the government through street demonstrations. If they are convicted of treason they will be executed. They are also accused of genocide which in this case refers to the murders committed by the security forces in Addis Ababa and other locations in the countryside. In this context, it should be noted that farmers, women and children in the countryside who were suspected of having voted for the party I am proud to represent have been beaten, imprisoned and, in some cases, murdered. They have been displaced from their farms, harassed and intimidated. Priests have sometimes been called upon to excommunicate them for having voted for the CUD. Considerable moral and physical pressure is being exerted on them. All of this has been heaped on the heads of the accused. Opposition leaders in prison are being held responsible for all of the actions of the militia and security forces, including murder.

One of the questions is whether those in need would be the losers if direct aid was affected. The answer to this question is yes. Nobody who knows Ethiopia has the heart to call for the complete cutting off of aid. The level of poverty is such that I cannot do so. As an anthropologist and historian, in addition to being chairperson of the Ethiopian National Congress, some of the causes of poverty are recurring drought, environmental destruction, population explosion, lack of transport, mobility of labour and economic resources, none of which has been addressed by successive governments. Therefore, increasing poverty has necessitated the intervention of non-governmental organisations, particularly foreign NGOs.

The main language spoken in Ethiopia is Amharic, rather than English. Therefore, Ethiopians are in the worst position to sell these issues to the international community. We do not know how to sell them. However, Ethiopians implore their countrymen and women who live abroad to tell the world that Ethiopia needs professionals, observers, journalists, parliamentarians, the European Union and anyone who can come to visit. They want them to be observers and witnesses of their daily public and private lives. By this, they mean they need aid. However, there is a force in Ethiopia which is preventing the people from receiving the aid they need, as observers who have visited Ethiopia have witnessed. The Ethiopian Government says one thing in Amharic and something totally different in English. If one wishes to find out what it is really like, one must make use of genuine, honest translators not assigned by government agencies. A person must find these translators independently and have them accompany him or her inside Ethiopia.

People have been forced to sign papers stating they are responsible for the damage committed by the CUD. They must be protected from such abuse. When English is used, it appears local government is run by local people but when Amharic is used, one can see it is run by cadres of the Tigré People's Liberation Front. People from Tigré decide matters, even at local level. It is cadres, not local people, that are running local government. Central government has absolute control.

I must let other speakers contribute because we are running late.

The question in which I am interested is being answered. What is the best thing the Irish Government can do and how can we successfully channel aid in order that it cannot become a weapon of government? I am still not clear whether independent civil organisations or NGOs, either at local or international level, can handle the current volume of aid involved. I would be grateful if that issue could be clarified because it is extremely important.

I welcome our visitor. My first point relates to a perspective that is useful to democratic debate on the issue. That perspective is opposed to the current Ethiopian Government. Who funds the Ethiopian National Congress, which was established in 1997 and which is based in Washington DC? Would I be broadly correct in suggesting that the organisation is comprised of people who oppose the current Ethiopian Government, which would obviously influence the perspective of Ms Berhane-Selassie's presentation.

Since the recent election, the unrest which has taken place has been very serious and has caused loss of life. This does not reach the standards to which we in the West have become accustomed in terms of democratic institutional standards. Given that the Government has no political interest in Ethiopia in a broad strategic sense and because it only wishes to help the poorest of the poor in Ethiopia, can Ms Berhane-Selassie understand our dilemma, particularly as all the principal agencies that work in partnership with us in Ethiopia are indicating that to remove aid from the current arrangement would be disastrous to people on the ground? Even though she said it would be better to give the money to local NGOs, trust associations and civil organisations in Ethiopia, the problem for us, as experienced politicians, is that we know a national immunisation programme for babies, a primary school enrolment service, etc., cannot be rolled out without the assistance of local authorities and some government workers and networks in order to ensure that such assistance is given directly to those who require it.

If we want to engage in a short-term response to humanitarian disasters, it is fine to use NGOs and fund whatever players are in the field. However, we face a dilemma in that we want to work with the Ethiopian people, through their elected government, to roll out programmes over many years that would help them to build up their own capacity — including that relating to economic and social structures — at local, regional and national level. On the one hand, we know that governance is not great — in many ways we are discussing a very fragile and emerging democracy — but, on the other, we must make a long-term investment and hope it will pay dividends in the future. We must invest in the capacity of that governance to improve over time.

I have made these points to explain our dilemma in this regard. The balance of the evidence to the committee has been that we should readjust our funding, refrain from direct budget support to the national exchequer, work with NGOs — when appropriate — and ring-fence our funding in order that we know that it will go to the health and education sectors and towards the important work we do in, for example, Tigré.

We have seen that the system is effective in Tigré, where people are working with the local government and getting good results. The money from Ireland has produced very good results in this regard and has benefitted people in their daily lives. It seems to have enhanced local government in Tigré. Does this not happen in other parts of the country? Are the organisations, NGOs and State agencies that work with the people in other areas not obtaining similar results? Is the Ethiopian Government taking control of the work that is going on and abusing it? We saw that the system was successful in Tigré in terms of governance and the administration of funding. The outcomes were all well measured and people clearly benefited.

Ms Berhane-Selassie

The example to which members refer relates to a small part of Tigré. The ranks of the street beggars in some of our desert towns include increasing numbers from Tigré. It is important to investigate why this is happening. What part of Tigré is benefiting from this model of development? Why are many people from Tigré running away to other areas? These are serious questions that must be answered. The Tigré People's Liberation Front, TPLF, stands for its members. Some of our members ask whether it is an Ethiopian Government or simply a tribal ethnic group that leads a strong party because it possesses guns.

The Irish Government is doing an excellent job and Ethiopians appreciate Irish people for their friendliness. There are difficulties in terms of the dilemma of governments working with governments, the limitations of governments working with NGOs, the crackdowns on NGOs locally and the impossibility of reaching out to large sectors of the population that deserve access to public services such as immunisation, education and so on. The dilemmas are real and we understand them.

The solution is to allow the Ethiopian population options in regard to development processes and operations. There is not just one way in which development can be achieved. Alternatives are available and close monitoring is possible. The West must help Ethiopians by exerting pressure on the TPLF to share the resources and allow co-operation in the development process. Development resources are not being shared equally.

Development in other parts of the country is not the same as that taking place in the modern parts of Tigré that are being developed by the government and NGOs. Hadia in the south was not given an input because at the last elections it defied the TPLF candidates. Such penalties have been imposed on several regions because they elected alternatives. The Ethiopian people would prefer justice and respect for human rights to model developments or an input through this or that Ministry. That is a matter we are considering at the Ethiopian National Congress.

We have $50 in our account because we give out what we can every month, sometimes $10 per month, sometimes nothing, it depends on our activities. None of our members is a member of the opposition parties, especially at executive level. We tried to facilitate communication between the opposition parties and the government in Ethiopia. If anyone can help us to do this, it would help to solve this problem. We appeal to the international community to bring pressure to bear on the Ethiopian Government to release political prisoners and bring them and the TPLF around the table. Unless the community does this, Ethiopians will be Ethiopians and everyone will be adamant on getting his or her own way. This is the militaristic, characteristic Ethiopian tradition inherited from the past. As the TPLF and the opposition will not give way, someone must find a solution by bringing them around the table. We have tried it. We have been onto the TPLF but it constantly rejects us. We remain outside in the hope of bringing the opposition parties around the table in order that they can sort out their differences and stop confusing the Ethiopian population. That will be the crunch; it is very important that both sides speak to each other.

The international community's legal and diplomatic responsibility could be redirected, at least temporarily, to help Ethiopia get over the current problems. Development in Ethiopia will not happen, unless leaders are freed from prison and brought around the table. It will be a stumbling block and will not work. That is not a threat; it is what I know about Ethiopians.

We do not disagree. We want to know how one can get people around the table and build on the progress made. The opposition had 12 seats and increased that number to 176. To us, that looked like a major step forward but then these problems arose and matters started to slip back.

Ms Berhane-Selassie

The TPLF knows it has not won because it goes around threatening people. Anyone who voted for other parties is told he or she will pay for it. Opposition leaders know they have won many seats but they have not all been acknowledged. The problem for the ENC is that there is no giving way; we want to see compromise and agreement. Once something happens in Ethiopia, compromise and relativity do not work. That is the problem we face and why we need help to bring people together around the table.

We are peacemakers who want people to return to the table. Obviously, two sides are needed to do this. We have heard about the demonstrations from Ms Berhane-Selassie but I recall no mention of the policemen who had been shot. We have learned from others, including some independent minded individuals, that matters were out of control. We have to cool the situation and enter dialogue across the table, although we agree it is crucial that we make representations on behalf of those in prison.

We will consider Ms Berhane-Selassie's remarks in conjunction with the other submissions received. We thank her for providing us with her own forthright views. Our main interest lies in restoring normality. We are anxious to give whatever assistance we can to achieve that aim. We are also deeply concerned about those who remain in prison.

Ms Berhane-Selassie

I thank the committee for allowing me the opportunity to speak.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.40 p.m. and adjourned at 4.50 p.m. until 5 p.m. on Wednesday, 8 March 2006.