Detentions display UN's impotence in Ethiopia

Ethiopia's government has held one United Nations employee in jail without charges for well over a year, while another is facing prosecution under a notorious anti-terrorism law.

Ethiopia's government, a favored and oft-praised Western partner, has held one United Nations employee in jail without charges for well over a year, while another is facing prosecution under a notorious anti-terrorism law.

The detentions are a stark indicator of the UN's predicament in the illiberal Horn of Africa nation.

The 27 UN agencies in Ethiopia largely work harmoniously with the government in areas such as funding HIV/AIDS programs, helping care for a quarter of a million refugees, or supporting female education campaigns. UN cash, for example, has helped provide antiretroviral therapy to 249,000 HIV-sufferers from 743 facilities – there were only 3 clinics offering the treatment in 2005. A high level delegation representing six UN agencies visited Ethiopia this month, and praised the country for its progress toward meeting five out of the eight Millennium Development Goals, rapid economic growth, and heavy investment in social services. Few would disagree that advances are being made in providing healthcare, education, and infrastructure for over 80 million Ethiopians.

The dignitaries, however, made no mention of Ethiopian national and UN Local Security Assistant Yusuf Mohammed, who has been languishing in a remote regional jail – without charges – since December 2010. Human rights activists say Ethiopia may use Mr. Mohammed as a bargaining chip in gaining custody of his brother, wanted for bankrolling a rebel group from Denmark.

A colleague of Mohammed's in the UN Department of Safety and Security, Abdirahman Sheikh Hassan, is being prosecuted for links with the same designated terrorist group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front. The group operates in Ethiopia's Somali region, which is inside Ethiopia but is majority Somali ethnic. Mr. Hassan's arrest in July came shortly after he negotiated the release of two abducted UN World Food Program workers with leaders of the ethnic-Somali insurgents.

While Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's two-decade-old government welcomes international assistance as it strives to haul Africa's second-most populous nation out of poverty, there is no doubt about who's in charge.

"The UN and any other member of the international community are caught between a rock and a hard place," says an aid worker with years of experience in the Somali region, who asked not to be named. "While there is clearly some great work going on in many key sectors, if anybody were to push their agenda beyond a limit considered acceptable by Ethiopia's notoriously strong and rigid government, then they would risk being expelled from the country." Or, he says, if you are Ethiopian; imprisoned.

Confidentially – public protestations may jeopardize career advancement – UN staff tell of regular harassment by the Ethiopian authorities: equipment is impounded at customs, UN workers' spouses are denied work permits, and vehicles are searched in contravention of the government's 53-year-old agreement with the organization.

In a public statement earlier this month on its imprisoned workers, the UN said it had advised the government of "the appropriate procedure to be followed in such cases under the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations" and that it had inquired about the "legal basis for their arrest."

While the local workers should be immune from detention under the convention, the government may have mistakenly believed that only international UN staff are protected, according to a UN official. This seems an unlikely mistake to have made in the case of Milan Dubcek, Slovakia's Ambassador to Ethiopia, who was held over a weekend in November by security agents after picking a sensitive spot on the fringes of the capital, Addis Ababa, to go for a Saturday stroll. "The local authorities neither informed Slovakia nor offered any explanation for why Dubček had been arrested," reported The Slovak Spectator.

In the case of Mr. Hassan, after taking almost a week to track down the file, government spokesman Shimeles Kemal was bullish about the "prima facie" evidence the state had against him. Officials have not commented on Mr. Mohammed's case.

Although a UN worker held in arbitrary detention may be unusual, the practice itself is not uncommon in Ethiopia, according to advocacy groups. "We believe that there were hundreds of individuals arbitrarily detained last year alone and the practice appears to be widespread," says Laetitia Barder from Human Rights Watch. Both HRW and Amnesty International – frequent, vociferous critics of Mr. Meles's administration – say identifying an exact figure is impossible due to the lack of independent monitoring of Ethiopia's prisons.

This lack of scrutiny is partly due to Ethiopia's 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation, which bars NGOs that receive more than 10 percent of funding from abroad from participating in rights work. The rationale is to allow Ethiopia's civil society to develop organically without undue and unaccountable foreign influence, explained Meles to journalist Peter Gill in his 2010 book Famine & Foreigners, Ethiopia Since Live Aid. Critics say the less-prosaic purpose is to shut out  foreign charities, such as those that allegedly helped try to unseat the ruling party in 2005.  

"The government would very much like to control the UN and other multilaterals the way they control the NGO sector," says an Ethiopia expert who asked not to be named for fear of limiting his future access to the country. But without the legal power to do so, and recognizing the UN's vital work, "it is a constant game of cat and mouse," says the aid worker about the government's relationship with the UN. "Yet the cat, it seems, will always get the cream."  

But at times, offshoots or smaller branches of the UN are quite critical: Five UN Special Rapporteurs on rights slammed the government for a crackdown on dissent in February; last year the International Monetary Fund was instrumental in highlighting the role of central bank lending to state enterprises in fueling soaring inflation; and the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization joined a chorus of criticism of the Gibe III hydropower dam.

But unless lead agencies also find a critical and concerted voice, there is no substantive UN opposition to the government's rogue tendencies. Or, as online Ethiopia commentator Jawar Mohammed puts it: "Meles does not give a damn about the toothless UN." 

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