Ethiopia: Holding the Entire Ogaden Collectively Guilty

News Politics
The Ogaden is Ethiopia’s dark, dirty secret where the regime commits numerous human right violations and killings with impunity
The Ogaden is Ethiopia’s dark, dirty secret where the regime commits numerous human right violations and killings with impunity

By  Ismail Mohamed Ismai’l,

THE illegal occupation of the Ogaden by Ethiopia is now in its most critical phase.

The occupation has been marred by a litany of human rights violations and in recent times – war crimes. While these infractions are well-known to Somalis, a complete media blockade on all foreign and independent media outlets has concealed their plight from international observers.

These atrocities – now being committed without accountability – are pervasive in nature and extensive in number. Insofar as they apply to the Ogaden, one of the more brutal policies currently being employed by the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) is that known as “collective punishment”

It is a fundamental tenant of legal jurisprudence that an individual can only be held legally responsible for an act he or she has personally committed and that a friend, family member or village cannot be held responsible for the act of an individual.a Known as ‘individual responsibility’, in times of conflict the primary purpose of this principle is simple – to protect the lives and property of those who choose not to partake in the conflict.

The ENDF has not only failed to recognise these principles internationally, but their policies towards the Ogaden people display a complete and utter disregard for them.


Somalis living in Ethiopia have long suffered the ill-effects of this illegal policy. In late 2007, following an increase in fighting between the ENDF and a prominent liberation movement known as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), senior officials from the Ethiopian government and military met in the Ogaden region’s capital, Jigjiga, for high-level talks on the perceived ONLF ‘problem’ and the potential avenues available to subdue their resistance. The officials concluded that the resistance could be quelled by attacking what they believed to be the resistance’s primary sources of support. At the time these included but were not exclusive to Rural villages and communities, Humanitarian aid, and Local businessmen.

The above talks were swiftly followed by the former Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, officially waging a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against the resistance. Their attempts to exact the above policies have for the most part been directly responsible for countless extra-judicial killings; mass-scale forced displacements; burning of villages and farms; the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war; and the unqualified ban on international and foreign humanitarian aid.

These allegations are often substantiated by eye-witness testimony of those directly affected. Credence is further established by satellite imagery which in most instances corroborates these testimonies. [i]


It is the sad reality that the Ethiopian penal code outlaws the very acts committed by its agents. Article 270 (g) of the Ethiopian Criminal Code clearly states:[ii]

Whoever, in time of war, armed conflict or occupation organizes, orders or engages in, against the civilian population and in violation of the rules of public international law and of international humanitarian conventions:

(g) … the imposition of collective punishments …

Or as expressed in article 282:[iii]

(g) Measures of intimidation or terror, the taking of hostages or the imposition of collective punishments or reprisals; or

(h) The confiscation of estates, the destruction or appropriation of property… is punishable with rigorous imprisonment from five years to twenty-five years, or, in more serious cases, with life imprisonment or death.

It is difficult to conceive that a legal system which prides itself on being an adherent to the rule of law and so vehemently condemns the practice of collective punishment can be responsible for the blanket of terror currently overshadowing over 5 million people.


The primary substantive human rights treaty of the African Union (AU)- the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights affirms the principle that an individual can only be responsible for an act he or she has personally committed. This is enshrined in article 7(2), which states:[iv]

(2) … punishment is personal and can be imposed only on the offender.

This is particularly hypocritical when one considers Ethiopia is not only a founding member of the African Union (and its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity) – but Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is currently home to the AU political headquarters.

The various international protections against collective punishment are extremely comprehensive and could demand an entire article of their own. Briefly, the Third Geneva Convention forbids the “collective punishment of individual acts”[v].

… collective punishment for individual acts, corporal punishment, imprisonment in premises without daylight and, in general, any form of torture or cruelty, are forbidden.

The Hague Convention of 1907 explicitly states that no punitive action can be inflicted on peoples for the actions of an individual:[vi]

No general penalty, pecuniary or otherwise, shall be inflicted upon the population on account of the acts of individuals for which they cannot be regarded as jointly and severally responsible.

The illegality of collective punishment is most distinctly expressed and summarized in the Fourth Geneva Convention:[vii]

No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.

Collective punishment by nature directly opposes the presumption of innocence over guilty and also goes against the right to a fair trial. One need not possess any formal legal training to discern that holding a group collectively responsible for the perceived acts of another almost immediately breaches a collection of human rights.

The aforementioned sections outline the domestic and international prohibition of collective punishment. In these sections, collective punishment is expressed in the gravest of terms. As a signatory of all four Geneva Conventions in addition to the customary status of the above inalienable laws, Ethiopia is legally bound to adhere to these protocols.

I know leave it to the reader, to consider whether the below documented cases are indicative of a government that promotes human rights or whether it is an example of a regime that has long forsaken all concepts of justice vis-a-vis its occupation of the Ogadent, that is, a regime that has unwarrantedly committed unspeakable truths against the very civilian population it originally set out to protect.


According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), it was reported that between June 2006 and August 2007, the civilian population of approximately 87 villages were forcibly displaced.[viii] This figure (inherently understated as it is) includes settlements which were then wholly burned by government officials. In Wardheer alone, a regional city located in East Ogaden, the ENDF forcibly uprooted the civilian population of towns and settlements extended approximately over a 60km radius. As has become the norm, many of the towns were also burned. In most instances, town residents are given unrealistically short timeframes to evacuate, often under the threat of violence, rape and execution.

Successive Ethiopian regimes have been behind the destruction and burning of undefended property in addition to the unlawful transfer of civilian population. The forced transfers of more than a quarter of a million civilians[ix] and the subsequent burning of entire villages as evidenced by satellite imagery are violations committed with the intention to punish any alleged support for the insurgency.

HRW reports that in Oct 2007, a 35 y/o refugee fleeing the attacks in Wardheer noticed the smouldering remains of the nearby village of Dameerey. This was later confirmed by satellite imagery. The burnings are undeniable and their purpose unambiguous.


It holds true that the people of the Ogaden have been denied many of the long-standing international protections offered to non-combatant civilians. Often, the violence is directed towards the most vulnerable groups of society – women and children. Under the personal orders of the Ethiopian hierarchy, and as a means of terrorising the population, the ENDF has waged a campaign of sexual violence against Somali women and girls of all ages.[x] Women suspected of being ONLF supporters or sympathisers are often taken into military custody where they are routinely gang-raped or otherwise sexually assaulted.[xi] Women who return to burned villages (by now are sealed-off and marked as ‘restricted zones’) to collect belongings left behind are also attacked.

The New York Times, in an article on the Ogaden conflict, reported the story of Ambaro – a 25 year old Somali who was gang-raped by five ENDF soldiers in the town of Fiiq. She reported that the soldiers would return every night to grab another young woman.[xii] This is not uncommon, with reports that women are frequently detained for months on end, enduring numerous counts of rape and beatings all on the conjecture of being an ONLF supporter. Rapes and sexual assaults are ostensibly hidden behind requests of police questioning and interrogation; one resident nearby of Shilaabo town who, along with her fellow towns-people, was taken for questioning relates the following account to HRW:[xiii]

Before we reached the town, the soldiers started beating us with thick sticks. They beat me very hard until I fell to the ground. This time while lying on the ground I was raped. I don’t know how many men raped me. Other women were raped too. It is a woodland area. We were about ten women, all of us were raped. After the rape, some of the soldiers continued beating women, others were strangled with a rope but they didn’t die. In our group, we were shot. I was hit behind the left shoulder with a bullet. The army left us in the woodland. We were found by townspeople who took us to the town.

One must understand the effect of rape and sexual violence when deployed as a weapon of war – as the ENDF indeed has – in much the same way as the barrel of a gun or the pin of a grenade. Psychologists have pinpointed rape as being the most intrusive of all traumatic events.[xiv] The pain of rape resonates through entire communities with its destructive nature eroding away the very fabric that ties a society together. Particularly for Somali-Muslims, rape is seen as an attack on not only their families but on their culture; as women are primarily seen as the bearers of the community’s familial values. The statistics of rape and sexual violence in the occupied Ogaden will almost always be understated as the fear of being ostracized or the potential for retaliation by the ENDF prevents the report of many attacks.


The stark reality is that the Ethiopian Governments has long made it their mission to target and punish the Ogaden civilian population under the pretext of fighting the ONLF. History has often portrayed instances of collective punishment as atrocities of the highest nature. In Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII, for every German killed by a Pole the Nazi response was to execute anywhere up to 400 Polish civilians in retaliation. It was the Nazi strategy to hold entire communities, towns and villages responsible for any legitimate Polish act of resistance against the invading forces. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides another shrewd example of collective punishment. One of the more long-standing practices of Israeli forces is the seizure or demolition of property belonging to the family members of detained Palestinians or alleged Hamas fighters. Properties are immediately surrounded by Israeli Defence Forces and occupants are given as little as half an hour to retrieve whatever belongings they can muster.

The above examples are well-documented and internationally known – this is why the public outcry is so vocal to the point of rambunctiousness. So why is it that almost the same, identical acts committed over and over in the Ogaden rarely get a mention in the world’s media? The reason is that any attempt to report on the violations is met with the most heavy-handedness of tactics by the Ethiopian forces.

Take the example of Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson – two Swedish freelance journalists who took it upon themselves to venture out in to the Ogaden to investigate the reports of alleged human rights abuses by the ENDF. They were arrested by Ethiopian forces and held for 6 months – eventually being charged with supporting terrorism. After high-level negotiations between the Swedish and Ethiopian governments the two were released.[xv]

During that year, approximately 150 other (mainly local) journalists were arrested, the majority of which represent the country’s opposition parties or independent media – they of course did not have a western government lobbying on their behalf and so are not as fortunate. The result from all of thisis that Ethiopia is well on its way to joining the likes of Burma and North Korea amongst a select group of countries with no real or proper independent sources of media.


History favors the oppressed. We have learnt from the recent events in the Middle-East and North Africa commonly referred to as the ‘Arab Spring’, the suppression of an entire population by a select few from the ruling class never lasts. When an oppressed people have called for independence, the oppressor’s first and immediate response has always been to intimidate the civilian population. Women are raped, children are maimed, men summarily executed; entire villages and towns are looted and burnt to the ground; during which individuals who resist are without due-process taken as political prisoners. The British did it to the Indians, the French to the Algerians, the White South African Apartheid Regime against the native Black South Africans – and the Ethiopian Government is currently committing all of these atrocities against ethnic Somalis living in the Ogaden Region of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia only survives because the international powers that be – the US, the UK and the European Union; the allies that finance and provide military assistance to the Ethiopian Regime; have failed consider how their funding is used, or more specifically, against whom their funding is used. It is without doubt that the only reason these atrocities continue to occur is because those committing them – whether they’re dressed in suits or military camouflage – do no fear accountability at any level. This can only be achieved through a sustained struggle against oppression.

Collective punishment is a war strategy as old as time itself, often used as a means of suppressing a burgeoning resistance movement. This stems from the belief that attacking the innocent people whom these groups seek to protect will arouse in them a sense of guilt and worthlessness, such that the group will be inclined to lay down their arms and allow their resistance to falter. As heart-wrenching as these acts may be, one must not lose track of the strategy which underpins the Ethiopia’s actions. They are intended to shock and so naturally one’s first reaction might be to yield.

Considering this, and particularly with regards to Ethiopia’s successive regimes of terror, one must ask himself or herself a simple but important question: “will the oppressor’s oppression really cease there?” In Ethiopia’s case, if history is a guide, certainly not.

As the old idiom goes, ‘The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour’.

– – – – – – –

[i] Above n2, 35

[ii] Ethiopia: Criminal Code [Ethiopia], 414/2004, art 270 (g)

[iii] Ethiopia: Criminal Code [Ethiopia], 414/2004, art 282 (g),(h)

[iv]Organization of African Unity (OAU), African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (“Banjul Charter”), 27 June 1981, CAB/LEG/67/3 rev. 5, 21 I.L.M. 58 (1982), art7(2)

[v] International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (Third Geneva Convention), 12 August 1949, 75 UNTS 135, art 87

[vi] International Conferences (The Hague), Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and Its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, 18 October 1907, art 50

[vii] International Conferences (The Hague), Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and Its Annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, 18 October 1907, art 33(1)

[viii] Above n2, 34

[ix] United Nations Systems, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’, <LINK>

[x]Alamayehu G Mariam, ‘Ethiopia: Demonising Ethiopian History’, All Africa, 30 January 2014; Human Rights Watch, UN: Atrocities Fuel Worsening Crisis in Horn of Africa<LINK>

[xi] Martin Plaut, ‘Silence and Pain: Ethiopia’s Human Rights Record in the Ogaden’, WordPress, 31 January 2014 < LINK>

[xii] Jeffrey Gettleman, ‘In Ethiopia, Fear and Cries of Army Brutality’, The New York Times, 18 June 2007 <LINK>

[xiii] Above n2, 61

[xiv] Office of the High Commission of Human Rights, ‘Rape: Weapon of War’, United Nations<LINK>

[xv] Their story is now in book-form. See Johan Persson& Martin Schibbye, 438 Dagar (Offside Press AB/Filter, 2013)