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Public Statements

Ethiopia and Eritrea: Promoting Stability, Democracy and Human Rights

Location: Washington, DC


Thursday, May 5, 2005

Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, earlier today, as chairman of the Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operation subcommittee, I convened a hearing on the precarious situation involving Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Seven years ago this month, the East African nations of Eritrea and Ethiopia began a devastating two-year conflict that cost the lives of as many as 100,000 soldiers and civilians. The war, which largely took place on Eritrean territory, displaced a third of that country's population and caused massive destruction. The deprivation in both countries continues long after the war ended, and the suffering goes on.

Eritrea's economy has been battered by four years of drought, which has further diminished this country's ability to feed its people. The U.S. Department of State estimates that large budget deficits have been caused by continued high defense spending. If not for remittances from Eritreans living abroad, the country's economy would be hard-pressed to sustain itself. In Ethiopia, the United Nations Children's Fund has identified 25 hot spots around the country where people are facing serious risk of malnutrition. This current crisis, according to UNICEF, is at least partly caused by delays in the start of the government's safety net program, and continued military spending will only further exacerbate the problems with an economy now surviving due to foreign assistance.

Human rights and democracy also are diminished by the concentration of both governments on resolving the border issue.

In the current U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Eritrea was cited for its poor human rights record:

"Citizens did not have the ability to change their government. Security forces were responsible for unlawful killings; however, there were no new reports of disappearances. There were numerous reports that security forces resorted to torture and physical beatings of prisoners, particularly during interrogations, and security forces severely mistreated army deserters and draft evaders. The Government generally did not permit prison visits by local or international groups, except the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Arbitrary arrests and detentions continued to be problems; an unknown number of persons were detained without charge because of political opinion."

Congress has been particularly interested in the case of Aster Yohannes, an Eritrean national who has been held incommunicado without due process since trying to visit her husband in jail in December 2003. A number of my colleagues and I sent a letter to Eritrean President Isaias (EE-SIGH-US) Afwerki (AF-WORK-EE) on January 6, 2004, concerning this matter:

"We respectfully urge you to release Aster Yohannes immediately and allow her to return to her family," the letter stated. "Web will regard this as a first step toward restoring human rights in Eritrea. We look forward to resolving this and other important issues in the very near future."

I personally have met with Eritrean officials at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva and here in the United States specifically on this issue last year and only a few weeks ago. Yet, more than a year later, Mrs. Yohannes is still imprisoned with no trial in sight, as are two U.S. Embassy personnel held without trial since 2001.

Eritrea's half Christian-half Muslim population has coexisted peacefully, but there are tensions that could lead to serious problems. There have been incidents of violence involving Muslim extremists and even violent incidents involving Coptics and other Christian groups. Government concern over the rapidly growing Pentecostal group has led to mistreatment of believers. On the whole, security issues seem to have put religious freedom aside in the priorities of the Eritrean government. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom was unable to be with us today, but they have submitted for the record a statement and report that details troubling limitations on religious freedom in Eritrea.

For the first time last year, the Secretary of State designated Eritrea as a "Country of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violation of religious freedom.

Finally, after a promising start to its democracy at independence, Eritrea cracked down on the political opposition in September 2001 and continues to seriously limit the ability of citizens to express themselves through the vote.
The State Department human rights report noted improvements in Ethiopia's human rights record, but it continues to note serious remaining problems:

"Security forces committed a number of unlawful killings, including alleged political killings, and beat, tortured, and mistreated detainees. Prison conditions remained poor. The Government continued to arrest and detain persons arbitrarily, particularly those suspected of sympathizing with or being members of the OLF. Thousands of suspects remained in detention without charge, and lengthy pretrial detention continued to be a problem. The Government infringed on citizens' privacy rights, and the law regarding search warrants was often ignored. The Government restricted freedom of the press; however, compared with previous years, there were fewer reports that journalists were arrested, detained or punished for writing articles critical of the Government. Journalists continued to practice self censorship. The Government at times restricted freedom of assembly, particularly for members of opposition political parties; security forces at times used excessive force to disperse demonstrations."

In Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch has documented incidents of murder, rape and torture committed by the Ethiopian military against the Anuak (ANN-YOU-AK) people in the southwestern region of Gambella. As our witness will detail in his testimony, hundreds of Anuak villagers have been killed in a series of attacks by soldiers and civilian mobs since December 2003. Beatings and torture of Anuaks have become all too commonplace in Ethiopia under a government whose attention is not focused on such egregious human rights violations.

Concerns over a repeat of the irregularities surrounding Ethiopia's 2000 and 2001 elections prompted some of my colleagues to introduce H.R. 935 to urge the Government of Ethiopia to ensure free and fair elections on May 15th. I commend the sponsors of this legislation and support the call for orderly, peaceful, free and fair elections in Ethiopia.
The short time remaining may limit the impact of this important piece of legislation, which is aimed specifically at the upcoming

elections. Therefore, I would like to work with the cosponsors of this bill on legislation soon after the elections in Ethiopia that would allow us to be more comprehensive and develop a legislative response that is consistent with the importance of this country in America's overall Africa policy.

Today, a number of colleagues joined me in sending a letter to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, urging him to rescind the expulsion of three American NGOs helping to build democracy-the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. For the sake of continuing democratic progress in Ethiopia, we hope the Prime Minister will respond positively to our request.

Again, Eritrea and Ethiopia are concentrating on building their military forces, and they are neglecting the very pressing needs of their people. Now their mutual militaries seem poised to renew open warfare due to unresolved issues involving their common border.

Both nations have increased their deployment of troops on the security zone border. Ethiopia recently added 30,000 troops for an estimated total of 90,000 armed men, most said to be within 40 kilometers of the frontier. While it is unclear exactly how many troops the Eritreans have deployed, they feel empowered to threaten military action if the current stalemate concerning the international border commission's ruling is not accepted fully by the Ethiopian government.

As recently as Tuesday of this week, Eritrean President Isaias announced at his ruling party conference that war with Ethiopia is imminent. President Isaias said his upcoming budget would be planned with war in mind. Presumably that budget will include funding for the arms the Eritreans agreed last month to buy from Russia.

If the war resumes, Ethiopia's Tekeze dam and Eritrea's port of Assab will be prime targets, which will only make worse an already precarious state of development in both nations.

It is difficult to understand why these formerly friendly nations would risk further devastation for territory not particularly blessed with natural resources. However, one must keep in mind that this border dispute actually dates back to the somewhat vague borders drawn by Italy, the former colonial power. So long as Eritrea and Ethiopia were united under colonial or dictatorial rule, the border issues were not pressing.

The peace process that eventually ended the war was predicated on an international commission impartially ruling on the demarcation of the 1000 kilometer border between the two countries. However, the decision of the commission has only been accepted "in principle" by the Ethiopians, who stand to lose their access to the Red Sea. The Ethiopian government is publicly complaining about loss of the town of Badme, hardly a strategic center. Meanwhile, the Eritreans refuse to even discuss the matter further.

U.S. policy should be clear on the Eritrea-Ethiopia dispute, but it appears to have depended on the old paradigm. We are supportive of both Eritrea and Ethiopia; however, issues such as the fight against global terrorism and the effort to contain Sudan's hostile government have caused American policy to tread lightly on development, democracy and human rights issues in those countries. We should not have to choose between security and democracy and human rights. It is not an "either-or" situation but "both-and." We must find a new framework for U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa, and we called this hearing partly to see how the Administration is addressing the full range of our concerns in this region.

Both Eritrea and Ethiopia make themselves more vulnerable to internal turmoil by their inability to address the many other vital issues they face even if there is a stalemate in the border dispute. This is neither in the short term interest of these two nations nor in the long term strategic interest of the United States. Identifying a more effective policy toward resolving the Eritrea-Ethiopia dispute was the focus of today's hearing.

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