Calling Our Ethiopian Ally to Account for Abuses


By Daniel Hemel

Published October 31, 2007, issue of November 02, 2007.
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American Jews stand at the forefront of the international campaign to stop the ongoing genocide in Darfur. The coalition of conscience that the Jewish community helped build is pressuring Sudan’s patron, China, to put an end to the slaughter.

Next door in Ethiopia, meanwhile, another humanitarian crisis is unfolding. Ethiopian troops are burning villages inhabited by ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region — using the same scorched-earth tactics employed by the Sudanese regime in Darfur. But there are two crucial differences between Darfur and Ogaden: First, Ethiopia’s principal patron isn’t China — it’s the United States. Second, on the Ogaden issue, the American Jewish community has so far been silent.

Ethiopia claims that it’s conducting a counterinsurgency operation in Ogaden. Admittedly, the terrorist threat in the region is real. The Ogaden National Liberation Front, a separatist group, murdered more than 70 people at a Chinese-run oil field in the region this past April. But Sudan is likewise facing a separatist rebellion in Darfur. That fact doesn’t justify Sudan’s slaughter of innocent civilians, and it doesn’t justify Ethiopia’s conduct either.

A farmer from Ogaden told a reporter that Ethiopian soldiers had strangled his wife to death with a rope; the wife had been nursing the couple’s one-year-old son when she was killed. A 25-year-old woman told The New York Times that Ethiopian soldiers visited her village each night and picked a new girl to be gang-raped. A staff member of Doctors Without Borders said she saw Ethiopian soldiers chasing women and children away from water-wells.

Ethiopia has expelled Red Cross representatives from the region and prevented Doctors Without Borders from gaining access to villages. That makes it harder for food and medicine to reach the desperate population there — and harder for real-life horror stories from Ogaden to reach the West. But a U.N. team did visit the region, and its report — released September 19 — was sobering. The monitors said they had found evidence of “serious violations of human rights.”

The body count in Ogaden is still a tiny fraction of the death toll in Darfur. But even though Ogaden isn’t the bloodiest conflict in Africa, the bloodshed there stains our own hands.

Ethiopia has been a close American ally in the fight against Islamists in neighboring Somalia, and the United States doled out $284 million in non-humanitarian aid to Ethiopia for fiscal year 2007. President Bush has asked Congress to raise that figure to $481 million for fiscal year 2008. If that request is approved, American aid would represent well over a tenth of the Ethiopian central government’s annual budget. In other words, Ethiopia is utterly dependent on American aid. Ethiopia can continue its scorched-earth campaign in Ogaden only if America lets it.

A bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey would halt the flow of nonessential aid to Ethiopia unless the government improves its human rights record and removes “undue restrictions” on aid workers. A House subcommittee approved the Payne bill on July 18; two days later, the Ethiopian government released 38 political prisoners from jails in the capital city of Addis Ababa. The timing of the prisoner release clearly shows that Ethiopia is responsive to American pressure. But while the House has pressed forward with human rights legislation, the Bush administration and the Senate have balked.

In early September, Bush’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Jendayi Frazer, paid what Voice of America described as a “whirlwind” visit to Ogaden, an area larger than the state of Florida. In about a day’s time, Frazer concluded that allegations of human rights abuses there were “unsubstantiated.” She must not have looked all that hard: The U.N. fact-finders said that they had heard “direct accounts” of abuses — and numerous journalists have reported the same. Unfazed by Frazer’s statements, the House pressed on with its efforts: At the beginning of October, it passed the Payne bill by voice vote and referred the legislation to the Senate for action. But it’s been nearly a month since then, and the Senate has yet to act.

While the Bush administration and the Senate have failed to intervene, we Jews have a sacred obligation to defend the victims of senseless slaughter: “Neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor,” the Book of Leviticus commands us. We Jews also have a special relationship with the people of Ethiopia, dating back to the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon, as recounted in the Bible’s Book of Kings. The horrors of Ogaden are especially vivid for us because we know all too well what it’s like to be an ethnic minority in Ethiopia: A previous government slaughtered hundreds of Ethiopian Jews in the 1970s.

To protect the Jews of Ethiopia, Israel airlifted thousands of men, women and children out of the country in the 1980s and early 1990s. American Jews played a key role in coordinating and financing the operations. The effort to protect the ethnic Somalis of Ogaden need not be so dramatic. It can be waged on the home front: Americans must insist that their elected officials place clear conditions on future aid to Ethiopia. But so far, the situation in Ogaden has yet to spark the public outcry that it ought to. It’s time for American Jews to take the lead once again.

Daniel Hemel is a 2007 Marshall scholar and is studying international relations at the University of Oxford.

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