By Tom Porteous, London Director
Published in Guardian Unlimited
January 30, 2008
Western policy towards Africa is ill-informed and inconsistent. That's the message of Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, in his interview in the Guardian last week. And there's some truth in what he says. But Meles should be careful what he wishes for.
And if western governments were more consistent and less selective in their reaction to human rights abuses around the world, they might be less inclined to turn a blind eye to Ethiopia's failure to abide by international norms in pursuit of its military objectives in Somalia and Ogaden.
Last year, Human Rights Watch documented a disturbing pattern of abuses by all sides, including Ethiopia, in the dangerous armed conflict which erupted after Meles sent his army into Somalia to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union, a group which many say has links to international terrorists. In its subsequent struggle with Somali insurgents, Ethiopia has committed serious violations of the Geneva conventions including the carpet-bombing of residential districts of Mogadishu, the deliberate targeting of hospitals and arbitrary executions.
Human Rights Watch has also documented abuses by Ethiopian forces in its simultaneous counter-insurgency campaign against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) in the Somali region of southeastern Ethiopia. These include the systematic use of rape, torture and execution as a means of terrorising and collectively punishing the civilian population, a partial trade blockade of districts deemed sympathetic to the rebels and the destruction of villages.
There are good reasons why Ethiopia's western backers do not jump to condemn Meles with the same speed with which they rightly condemn, say, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe or Sudan's Omar al-Bashir. In his almost 20 years in power, Meles, a former rebel leader, has transformed Ethiopia from a war-torn, famine-prone dictatorship into a relatively stable state which combines elements of both democracy and authoritarianism. He has won plaudits from donors for poverty reduction and good economic stewardship.
Meles' supporters also make allowances for the fact that he is the key regional player operating in a tough neighbourhood. Somalia is a failed state; Eritrea is a closed dictatorship that has picked fights with most of its neighbours; Sudan defies the UN and the international criminal court in their efforts to secure peace and accountability in Darfur; and now Kenya is slipping into its worst political crisis since independence.
But above all western politicians and diplomats warm to Meles, because they concur with his analysis that he is a bulwark against the spread of Islamist militancy in the Horn of Africa. Meles plays this card well. He is helped by the fact that the influence of political Islam is strong and growing among the large Muslim populations of the region. Furthermore, Islamist militants, some with links to international terrorist organisations, are operating in Somalia, Kenya and elsewhere in the Horn.
But, while these considerations can help to nuance the west's diplomatic, economic and military relations with Meles, they can be no excuse for the war crimes and gross violations of human rights that Human Rights Watch has documented in Somalia and Ogaden. These unjustifiable acts are not only morally repugnant; they are also counterproductive. They serve to undermine international respect for the rule of law and they are likely to sharpen radicalisation and conflict in what is already one of the most dangerous parts of the world.
The west's failure to acknowledge the reality of what is going on in these remote and inaccessible places and its failure to call for full investigations and accountability leaves the impression that when it comes to counter-terrorism, anything goes. It is a shortsighted policy that is already backfiring in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon - and it will backfire here too.