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Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan: Troubling developments

UN rights chief spotlights troubling developments in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan

Ethiopia is holding opposition figures under laws that may violate its constitution, Somalia urgently needs international attention, and despite assertions by Sudan’s Government, displaced women in that country’s Darfur region are still being raped on a large scale, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said today.

Just back from a two-week mission to the Horn of Africa, she told reporters at the UN complex in Geneva that in Ethiopia, thousands of people were imprisoned after events following last year’s elections year. Of these just over 100 remained, comprising elected officials, journalists and other members of civil society charged with genocide and treason.

Under the Ethiopian Code of Criminal Procedure, the prisoners could not get bail for these serious offences. Ms. Arbour said this called into question whether the Code was in conformity with the Ethiopian Constitution which provides for the right to bail. The Constitution also provides that bail could be denied in exceptional circumstances by a court, but these defendants had not had access to a court, she noted.

“I have urged the Prosecutor to take another look at the evidence in an effort to see whether it would be feasible in some, if not in all cases, to reduce the charges so as to make them bailable,” she said.

The elected members of parliament were not likely to be able to take up their seats and could remain in custody for a very long period of time, she said. “The reality of this is that it has become a metaphor for the shrinking space for civil society and debate in a country where there were hopes that democracy was going to be flourishing.”

Ms. Arbour noted that the Ethiopian Government had been accommodating in giving her access to the Addis Ababa prison where she met privately with several of the opposition leaders in detention. In Sudan, she visited three camps in Darfur for the second time since 2004 and Southern Sudan’s capital, Juba, for the first time.

Ms. Arbour said that there was no sign that sexual violence against the women of Darfur had receded or been brought under control in any way. During her first visit to Darfur in 2004, she met with groups of women in the camps who had been raped by the Arab militia called janjaweed.

She said she had been shocked to meet women this time who had subsequently given birth to the children of rape and who might later be ostracized by the community. After meeting groups of Darfur’s women who had recently been raped, she said she told the Government the rapes were taking place “on a large and unattended scale.”

“The Government asserted that it had taken many initiatives to address the question of sexual violence. The initiatives that I have been made aware of, as far as I am concerned, so far, continue to be paper initiatives. I saw no evidence on the ground that any of these committees that have been set up to look after these issues have made a dent in the problems,” the High Commissioner said.

Recent events, including the Darfur peace agreement reached in Nigeria, have refocused attention on the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Darfur, “but I think it is fair to say that underneath this humanitarian crisis, there is also a very serious human rights situation,” she said.

Meanwhile, the international community was neglecting the comprehensive peace agreement struck between Southern Sudan and the Government of Sudan last year, she said. South Sudan had to be rebuilt because there was virtually no governance, physical or economic infrastructure after 20 years of conflict.

In south Sudan, as in Darfur, there was no hope of maintaining peace if attention was not given to disarmament, she said.

On Somalia, she said her colleagues in the UN system were poised to deploy, if possible, but there was frustration that “the international community was insufficiently engaged in a country that needed a huge amount of assistance and where a large part of the country still needed governance to take root.”

Last week, the chair of the sanctions committee for Somalia, Qatari Ambassador Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, briefed the Security Council on the latest report from the Monitoring Group, which said that “arms, military materiel and financial support continue to flow like a river to various actors, in violation of the (1992) arms embargo.”

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