How US Surveillance Helps Repressive Regimes—the Ethiopia Case

Recent stories from Edward Snowden’s disclosures show how the US government’s involvement with Ethiopia presents a case study in enabling repressive regimes to carry out surveillance on their own citizens. In the case of Ethiopia, such surveillance powers can play a significant role in a government’s criminalization of dissent and politically motivated detentions. The United States is not alone in its assistance. Ethiopia has also used hacking technologies obtained from abroad to spy on diaspora living in the United States. It is high time for the US administration and Congress to reckon with the human rights abuses of the Ethiopian government, and how the sharing of national security technologies is enabling the regime.

The National Security Agency (NSA) documents provided by Snowden reveal that the US set up several listening posts in Ethiopia in 2002 to intercept communications from Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen, as part of its regional counterterrorism efforts. In 2006, the documents indicate, the NSA agreed to provide Ethiopia with additional domestic surveillance technology in the Somali Regional State, commonly called the Ogaden. As part of these partnerships, the US trained Ethiopia’s army and security agency in surveillance techniques in exchange for local language capabilities and well-placed intelligence operations centers.

In other words, this wasn’t just US intelligence analysts sitting in Ethiopia – which would have been problematic enough given the US history of abusive renditions at that time.  It was the NSA actually training and transferring this technology to the Ethiopian army and government. As the documents state: “The benefit of this relationship is that the Ethiopians provide the location and linguists and we [United States] provide the technology and training.”

This news raises many questions because we know the Ethiopian army, not long after, proceeded to commit war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in the Ogaden region in 2007-2008 during a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against the Ogaden National Liberation Front. Various Ethiopian forces have continued to commit serious abuses in Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State ever since.

Ethiopia, a major ally of the United States, has worked over many years to ruthlessly and methodically crush political dissent. Its security forces terrorize the population with impunity, tens of thousands of people are detained for political reasons, and it misuses the counterterrorism narrative to crack down on peaceful dissent. While Western nations have largely turned a blind eye to Ethiopia’s human rights record, there has been limited evidence to link the Ethiopian government’s most serious abuses, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, to its Western allies.  Until now.

The NSA can’t feign ignorance. In addition to a 130-page Human Rights Watch report published in 2008 that documents extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and mass arrests by the NSA’s partner in the Ogaden, the US State Department itself routinely reports on serious abuses by the army, including in 2005, the year before the US and Ethiopia reportedly expanded their deal. United Nations human rights bodies and experts, in which the United States is an active participant, have also drawn attention to Ethiopia’s abusive security forces.

Military abuses are not limited to the Ogaden. Ethiopian government forces have long committed abuses throughout the country– including possible crimes against humanity in the Gambella region in 2003. In the last two years, government security forces have killed over 1,000 people during a year of protests against the government and security force aggression.

Human Rights Watch’s research has documented how one of the Ethiopian government’s security agencies, the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), plays an increasingly key role in facilitating surveillance of Ethiopians’ private communications for security and police forces.  The law enforcement and security agencies in turn use the information to arrest people for lawful opposition activities under the pretext of counterterrorism. And many of those arrested are arbitrarily detained without trial.

In 2014, Human Rights Watch documented how authorities used transcripts, recordings, and phone call metadata during violent interrogations and in politically motivated trials.  Such information is usually obtained without judicial warrants and Ethiopia lacks meaningful protections for privacy and fair trial rights.

The US is not alone in having provided surveillance capabilities to Ethiopia. The government’s Chinese-developed telecom system allows officials to monitor every phone call in the country. The government also used spyware made by Italian firm Hacking Team and German/British firm Gamma International to hack into electronic devices and spy on members of the Ethiopia diaspora, including those in the United States. Evidence exists that spyware of various types continues to be used to target dissidents in the diaspora.

While the Snowden documents show the US-Ethiopia surveillance partnership lasted up until at least 2010, it is highly likely that this relationship has continued given the strong cooperation between the two governments in other areas and the US government’s insatiable appetite for intelligence.  This could make the US complicit in the very serious crimes being committed by its security partner.

As a general matter, international law forbids a government’s assisting another government in the commission of international law violations. Those international rules are even more restrictive when the recipient’s violations are well-known and repetitive.

The US Congress has recently and rightly expressed concern over human rights abuses committed by Ethiopia’s government, including by recommending that the Secretary of State should “conduct a review of security assistance to Ethiopia in light of recent developments and to improve transparency with respect to the purposes of such assistance…”

In this vein, Congress should ask both the NSA and its parent agency, the Defense Department, for clarity on the status of its surveillance partnership with Ethiopia and what protections are in place to ensure the US is not in any way facilitating the serious abuses being committed by the Ethiopian army and other government agencies — abuses that ultimately undermine US interests in the region.

Photo: Street video CCTV surveillance on cracked wall with flag of Ethiopia – azatvaleev/Getty Images 

About the Author(s)

Felix Horne

Senior Ethiopia and Eritrea Researcher for Human Rights Watch Follow him on Twitter (@FelixHorne1).