Famine and Human Rights


Ethiopia is a country of ancient cultures and highly varied geography in the northeaster Horn of Africa. It has a proud history of avoiding colonialism by resisting invaders, in particular the Italians in the 1930’s. In recent decades it has given signs of prosperity and growing influence in the region and in Africa. At the same time, it is beset with serious, even life-threatening, problems.

Ethiopia is known for its precarious climate, subject to drought. The famine of 1983-85, killing 1 million of its 100 million people, was particularly severe. It drew worldwide attention, including from famous pop musicians in the West who for the first time raised funds for famine relief by staging concerts. There was another bad famine in 2003.

Last year, 2015-2016, saw a severe famine in Ethiopia’s highland region. Some 10.2 million people were affected by hunger. Both the Ethiopian government and the international community mobilized to provide massive aid and a famine was averted. The Ethiopian government spent some $400 million in the effort, from a country that has few resources. Many believe that the drought was caused by the El Niño phenomenon of warming in the Pacific Ocean which occurs every few years, but which is likely made more frequent and severe by global climate change. Unfortunately, El Niño is forecast to return in 2017, with probable harsh effects again for Ethiopia—far from the Pacific but part of the world climate system. A drought is forecast again for the highland region based on this projection.

Meanwhile, in 2017, a drought has produced another terrible threat of famine in a different part of Ethiopia, the southeastern lowlands bordering Somalia. This famine is unlike the more publicized ones in nearby Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, as well as Nigeria. In those countries, the major cause is violent conflict preventing agriculture, in combination with drought. But in Ethiopia it is not conflict but environmental and again likely linked to climate change, as warmer temperatures in the Indian Ocean affect the rains. The Ethiopian government estimated about May 1 that 7.7 million people will need food aid, up from a previous prediction of 5.6 million. It is likely that even more will be affected—in total perhaps more than the victims in South Sudan and Somalia combined. The Ethiopian government is low on funds after last year’s food crisis in the highlands. Earlier, in January, the government and aid agencies had estimated a need for $1 billion for humanitarian needs, but this was before the latest estimates revised the count of victims upwards. Less than half of that amount has been promised, mostly from the international community, as Ethiopia can only give $47 million this time.

As with many African countries, ethnicity is a troubling factor in Ethiopian politics. The nation had a socialist government which was overthrown in 1991. After that, members of the minority Tigrayan people held many senior positions in government and business, despite the smaller size of their ethnic group. Oromo and Amharic groups are far larger and have become frustrated at the limitations of opportunity in both politics and in the economy. There have been movements of resistance in the region called Oromia in particular. Elections in 2015 appeared to be fraudulent. Opposition leaders, students, activists and journalists were jailed and there have been reports of torture in detention. Large demonstrations were held last year, and in October the government called a state of emergency. Tens of thousands at rallies were arrested, and hundreds were killed when security forces opened fire. Since then the government has interfered with internet access, and the media, to slow news reports. This stopped the momentum of the opposition forces, but some protests have continued. The government says it has released and “reeducated” thousands of prisoners who had been in detention centers. The country is quieter but the tranquility is not secure.

Human rights violations have been so bad that on May 17, 2017, members of the U.S. Senate introduced a bill denouncing Ethiopian government’s behavior It has bipartisan support. The bill calls for release of political prisoners and journalists, respect for human rights and democracy, permission for UN human rights investigators, and several types of sanctions on Ethiopian leaders.
It does not yet have a number A similar bill was already introduced in the House of Representatives, in February. It is H.Res.128, and it has many cosponsors from both parties.

The Ethiopian government is criticized also for downplaying any “bad news” about the country that would detract from its more recent reputation as a nation on the rise. This was seen last year in delays in admitting to the severity of the drought in the highlands—delays that caused a slow response from outside the country. A similar attitude has caused the government’s health ministry to avoid admitting to cholera outbreaks in the country, which it labels as “acute diarrheal disease” instead. “Cholera” might harm the reputation of Ethiopia and also discourage tourism and investment. A similar pattern occurred in the slowness of Ethiopia to recognize and name the Ebola epidemic in West Africa that took some 11,000 lives.

Ethiopia is next to Somalia, and a factor for the United States and others is that Ethiopia has been a rare ally on the front lines (literally) in the armed fight against Al Shabaab, the Islamist extremist faction labeled a terrorist organization active in Somalia. Ethiopia has contributed troops and engaged in battles with Al Shabaab. The U.S. has supported them in that effort. It also has intervened in Somali politics in ways that the U.S. approves. Thus it is difficult for some U.S. authorities to criticize Ethiopia’s internal policies. Yet human rights abuses are so great that the peaceful future of Ethiopia could become questionable unless its government adheres to human rights norms.

The capital, Addis Ababa, is an ancient center and a symbol of African culture and aspirations for decades in the modern era. Tourism is a major income earner. In many ways the economy has boomed in recent times since the collapse of the socialist government. Ethiopia is also a country that has seen enormous “land-grabbing” arrangements of agricultural land by foreign corporations making deals with the government. These corporations are seeking to invest in the future and to grow crops for export to the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere.

Stephen Price

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