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UK Aid to Ethiopia probed in legal action over alleged human rights abuses

Alleged human rights abuses are being investigated as a result of the Ethiopian Government’s Villagisation Programme.

6 September 2012

Alleged human rights abuses are being investigated after claims that the Ethiopian Government’s Villagisation Programme is forcing some Ethiopians to flee their homes and that appalling human rights abuses have taken place in part supported by funds from the Department for International Development (DFID).

Law firm Leigh Day & Co has threatened legal action on behalf of Mr O who claims he suffered severe abuse and had to flee his home in the Gambella region of Ethiopia as part of the Villagisation programme.

His identity is protected such is his fear of reprisal by the Ethiopian Government.

In a letter before action sent yesterday (Wednesday 5 September) to new Secretary of State for International Development, Justine Greening, lawyers for Mr O ask for a number of documents and further information from the DFID on its role in the Villagisation programme.

Among the questions posed is what steps were taken to ensure that UK aid funds were not used to contribute to violations of human rights in the process of Villagisation?

The letter also asks whether DFID considers the human rights violations alleged by Mr O, and linked to Villagisation, amount to a breach of a partnership commitment by the Ethiopian Government?

The firm has given the Secretary of State 14 days to respond to the letter, before considering whether legal action is required to seek disclosure of documents and answers to various questions posed.

Mr O, who has a wife and six children, was a subsistence farmer and completely dependent on his land. He was also studying part-time.

In November 2011, soldiers from the Ethiopian National Defence Force (ENDF) arrived at his village. They told the inhabitants to leave and move to a different location. The resettlement was forced. The harvest was ripe but the villagers were not given any time to bring it in.

Several men were beaten, women were raped and some people disappeared during the forced resettlement. Mr O, along with his family and the other villagers, was taken to a new location and told to settle there.

They were not given new farms or any farmland and there was no food or water available. The few menial jobs to be had did not provide enough income for survival. There was no school and no healthcare facility in the area, both of which had existed in his previous home area. In order to survive, Mr O returned to his old village and attempted to continue farming there.

Shortly after his return, he was captured by ENDF soldiers, who took him to a military camp. There he claims he was gagged and then severely beaten for several hours. The soldiers used their rifles and their boots to beat him, causing significant injuries.

The Ethiopian Government’s Villagisation Programme seeks to bring about the resettlement of some 1.5 million people in four of Ethiopia’s regions, namely Gambella, Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz and Somali.

Ethiopia is among the biggest recipients of UK aid, which contributes significant funding to the Protection of Basic Services (PBS) Programme.

Lawyers for Mr O claim that by contributing to this programme, which supports five sectors of services: health, agricultural support, roads, water and education, it contributes to the Villagisation Programme, by financing infrastructure in new settlements for forcibly relocated populations, or by paying the salaries of district officials overseeing and implementing the Villagisation programme.

The NGO Human Rights Watch conducted an in-depth investigation into the practices used to implement Villagisation. This found extensive evidence of forced relocation to inadequate new settlements and significant human rights violations committed in the process.

Rosa Curling, a member of the Leigh Day & Co Human Rights team representing Mr O said:

“The UK spends a considerable amount of money on international aid and the DFID has a responsibility to ensure that this money does not contribute in any way to human rights abuses such as the ones suffered by our client.

“Our government has a duty to ensure that the programmes it supports meet the highest compliance standards. It also has a responsibility for transparency.”

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