UK government accused of sponsoring human rights abuses in Ethiopia

(Reuters / Andreea Campeanu)
A development project funded by the UK government and run by the World Bank could be facilitating a violent resettlement program in Ethiopia that has been dogged by allegations of forced displacement, physical assaults and rape, a leaked report suggests.

Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID) is the primary sponsor of the World Bank’s foreign aid initiative, supposedly set up to improve basic health, education and public services in Ethiopia. It has attracted over £388 million in UK taxpayer’s money to date.

According to a leaked report, obtained by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists, the seemingly benign aid program is facilitating a controversial resettlement scheme driven by the Ethiopian government.

The scathing report, carried out by the Bank’s in-house watchdog, warns of poor oversight, inadequate auditing and a failure to adhere to its own regulations which has bred links between the development program and the forced displacement of the Anuak people.

The Anuaks are a marginalized minority Christian group in Ethiopia.

Severe human rights abuses

The Ethiopian government’s resettlement program has been condemned by human rights groups worldwide who warn it has led to the destruction of thousands of Ethiopians' livelihoods.

The initiative, known as ‘villagization’, aims to relocate 1.5 million rural families from their homesteads to villages across Ethiopia.

Since its launch in 2010, the program has been the centre of allegations of rape, physical assaults, forced evictions and disappearances.

Many of those who are uprooted from their homes and resettled elsewhere are forced to reside in substandard living conditions in refugee camps in Southern Sudan.

While the World Bank’s top brass have long denied any links to the Ethiopian government’s villagization program, an inquiry conducted by the Bank’s internal watchdog indicates otherwise.

The inquiry’s leaked findings, which surfaced this week, said the Bank’s inadequate auditing controls created a situation whereby over £300m of the DfID’s foreign aid funding could have been siphoned directly into the contentious resettlement scheme.

The report did not examine allegations the resettlement program is responsible for human rights abuses in Ethiopia, however, stressing that such an inquiry was not within its remit.

Nevertheless, it uncovered a slew of failures in the planning and implementation of the World Bank’s foreign aid program, particularly the Bank’s failure to carry out risk assessments.

The watchdog also found the Bank did not adopt necessary safeguards to protect marginalized indigenous peoples.

Uneven economic development

Anuradha Mittal, founder of the Oakland Institute, a Californian development NGO that is active in Ethiopia, said the DfID participated in the World Bank’s development initiative, and should therefore take responsibility for the scheme’s failings.

“Along with the World Bank and other donors, DfID support constitutes not only financial support but a nod of approval for the Ethiopian regime to bring about ‘economic development’ for the few at the expense of basic human rights and livelihoods of its economically and politically most marginalized ethnic groups,” she told The Guardian.

David Pred of Inclusive Development International, an NGO that works to defend the rights of the Anuak people, said the World Bank has facilitated the forced displacement of “tens of thousands of indigenous people from their ancestral lands.”

“The Bank today just doesn’t want to see human rights violations, much less accept that it bears some responsibility when it finances those violations,” he told the Guardian.

A spokesman for the World Bank declined to comment on its internal watchdog’s leaked report.

Probed on the watchdog’s findings, the DfID also declined to comment.

A marriage of convenience?

In March 2014, an Ethiopian farmer secured legal aid to sue the British government following his claim UK taxpayers' funds were sponsoring Ethiopia's resettlement scheme.

He said murder, rape and torture were employed by Ethiopian authorities, as part of the forced displacement program.

The 34 year-old farmer, known as Mr. O, had been forced to flee Ethiopia after he was tortured and beaten for trying to protect his land.

He said the British government were contributing to the devastation of some of Ethiopia’s poorest people rather than assisting them.

In June, Britain’s DfID faced a judicial inquiry over its alleged funding of human rights abuses in Ethiopia.

A High Court judge ruled at the time that Mr. O had a case against the British government, and his legal challenge was upheld. His lawsuit is still ongoing.

Ethiopia's single-party government is a core ally in the West’s war on terror.

It is also a leading recipient of UK aid, despite human rights groups' repeated allegations the funding is used to crush dissent in the troubled state.