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ETHIOPIA: UN warns of humanitarian crisis in Somali region

NAIROBI, 5 October 2007 (IRIN) - Concern is mounting about the humanitarian situation and human rights in Ethiopia’s Somali region, which threatens to affect 1.8 million people unless remedial action is taken soon, according to the UN.

“We will see a major crisis develop in the next month unless there is a resumption of livestock trade and export, commercial and humanitarian food distribution, urgent healthcare, and access by government service providers and humanitarian
partners,” stated Paul Hebert, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia, in a report issued on 5 October. Hebert led a mission to the Somali region between 30 August and 5 September.

Meanwhile, legislative moves in the United States to cut aid to Ethiopia are unlikely to have a dramatic impact on its internal policies, an analyst with a leading think-tank said.

"It is going to have some limited effect," Tom Cargill of Chatham House said of the Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act, which has been passed by the House of Representatives but has yet to be approved by the Senate or President George W Bush.

"It is symbolically important because it shows there is a range of views in the US about Ethiopia, but we should not read too much or too little into it."

If the bill were to become law, the US could stop military assistance to Ethiopia and impose travel restrictions on some government officials unless Addis Ababa released “political prisoners” and people detained without trial, prosecuted officials “involved in the unlawful killings of demonstrators” after elections in May 2005, and ensured the independence of the judiciary and the press.

US humanitarian assistance, food aid, support to combat HIV/AIDS and other healthcare assistance would not be affected by the legislation.

"Special" relationship

Cargill was doubtful the bill would be enacted. "The relationship between Ethiopia and America is so important," he said. "The question is - does Ethiopia need America more than America needs Ethiopia?"

Ethiopia is a key ally of the US in its efforts to combat international terrorism.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi blasted the bill: "It is an unfair decision. It is the result of a vendetta,” he told reporters in Addis Ababa on 4 October. "We have excellent relations with the USA, I hope they'll stay like that. But it is a two-way thing," he added.

Elements of the opposition in Ethiopia welcomed the legislation, however.

"The US House of Representatives has shown that executing the global war on terrorism is not incompatible with the forceful promotion of human rights and democracy," said the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), an armed group described by Ethiopian authorities as a “terrorist” organisation.

Clashes between the ONLF and government forces in the Somali region are the main cause of the humanitarian crisis there.

Food crisis

“Humanitarian conditions within the conflict areas have deteriorated substantially over the past several months,” according to OCHA.

“The nutritional status of the population will rapidly worsen within two or three months if only limited quantities of commercial food continue to be available,” the report added, noting that the price of food in Ogaden had already almost doubled.

The joint mission also called for an independent investigation into allegations of “serious violations of human rights” in the Ogaden.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a statement to the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, said both the government and rebels were responsible for atrocities in the remote region.

"There are no clean hands among the hostile parties in the Ogaden conflict," HRW said, adding that it had documented serious abuses of civilians, including summary executions by the ONLF. “The Ethiopian military had also systematically committed atrocities and violated the basic laws of war,” it said.

According to HRW, civilians in Ogaden were being targeted intentionally and villages burnt as part of a campaign of collective punishment, while public executions, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and torture in military custody were rampant, forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes.

Security concerns

"We recognise that Ethiopia has legitimate and serious domestic and regional security concerns and that all of the warring parties share responsibility for atrocities against civilians," HRW’s Sam Zafiri said. "Nevertheless, nothing justifies the severe violations we are witnessing today in the Ogaden."

In Washington, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, who recently visited the Somali region, also told the committee that all sides had contributed to civilian hardship there.

"Regrettably, the actions of rebel groups, extremists, and government troops alike have all taken a damaging humanitarian toll on the local civilian population," she said. "The challenge for the [government] and international partners is to mitigate the civilian impacts of these events."

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Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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