British International Development Secretary Hilary Benn arrived in Ethiopia on Sunday to advocate greater land reform as a means of tackling food shortages. Benn, who was appointed to his post five months ago, believes that production could be boosted by encouraging peasant land ownership.
His four-day visit is taking place amid mounting concern over the country’s human rights record and criticism of foreign donors for turning a blind eye to this aspect. Rights organisations say abuses being perpetrated by the government - which has held power for 12 years - are being passed over because Ethiopia is an ally in the war on terror.
"The Ethiopian government continues to deny its citizens’ basic human rights and to repress the unarmed opposition," said the New York-based organisation, Human Rights Watch, in its 2004 World Report. "Foreign donors have not played any role in correcting these abuses," it stressed.
Britain is one Ethiopia's most generous donors, having given it US $90 million of taxpayers’ money in the last two years alone.
Benn, who will meet Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, is expected to raise the country’s human rights record, as well as the unresolved border dispute with Eritrea. Tackling Ethiopia’s entrenched poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has left one million children orphaned was also expected to be on the agenda, officials told IRIN. His visit comes as bilateral diplomatic ties are being consolidated and levels of aid are rising – 75 percent of which is expected to be given directly to the government.
Prof Mesfin Wolde-Mariam, the president of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (ERCHO), says the government’s "ethnically guided policies" have been fuelling internal conflict. The country is divided into political parties, regions and local administrations, all along ethnic lines.
Fighting in western Ethiopia has sparked concern among human rights organisations amid claims that government troops were involved, which the government has denied. An estimated 150 people were killed during fighting in the Gambella region, which is 800 km west of the capital, Addis Ababa.
ERCHO has also revealed that ethnic clashes in eastern Ethiopia between two groups competing for political power have claimed 18 lives in recent months.
The government has also faced criticism for banning the country’s independent journalists' association and playing a role in the election of the association's a new leadership.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia is under growing pressure to abide by an international court ruling on its frontier with neighbouring Eritrea. An independent tribunal based in The Hague appointed by both countries as part of their peace deal placed sections of territory in Eritrea, but Ethiopia rejected the ruling as "illegal". The two countries fought a bloody war that ended in December 2000; since then, 4,200 UN peacekeepers have upheld a fragile peace costing the international community $200 million a year.
Ethiopia is one of the world's poorest countries with 50 million people each living on less than one dollar a day. Last year, say aid agencies, 14 million people faced the spectre of famine.