Genocide or Terrorism? Transnational Advocacy and the Ogaden Conflict

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by Terrence Lyons, Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University
og111-618x411Political processes and outcomes within particular nation-states today are significantly impacted by the migrant communities and diasporas of those polities. Understanding contemporary politics therefore requires a perspective that recognizes how political processes and actors increasingly operate both within and across specific territorially defined spaces. The polity often remains defined by a specific identity with attachments to a particular “homeland,” but these communities are now often transnational and characterized by patterns of ongoing migration and movement. Diverse political entrepreneurs — including, in some cases, the governments of migrant sending nations — increasingly see diaspora networks as effective instruments to mobilize resources and key constituencies in order to shape political outcomes on a particular issue in a specific state. (For more on transnational politics see the volume I edited with Peter Mandaville, Politics from Afar: Transnational Diasporas and Networks).
One channel of transnational political activism attempts to frame local conflicts for international audiences in order to shape global policy toward parochial issues. In Ethiopia, for example, there has been a protracted conflict in the Somali-inhabited eastern region where the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) has fought with the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The ONLF mobilized its supporters in the diaspora and attempted to link its cause with transnational advocacy groups focused on genocide prevention. At the same time the EPRDF reached out to its supporters in an effort to frame the conflict within the broader narratives of the global war on terrorism. Both of these competing transnational campaigns sought to shape the policies of governments and international organizations, and the ONLF further sought to influence prominent international advocacy groups and human rights organizations. The outcome of a very local conflict over control of the Ogaden was linked to larger regional, international, and transnational political processes.

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These dynamics were illustrated by a particular episode in August 2009 when a government-led delegation from Ethiopia’s Somali region visited diaspora leaders in Sweden and North America to brief them on current developments. While the ruling EPRDF sought to characterize the ONLF as an “instrument of other anti-peace elements in Somalia and Eritrea who have been playing a game with the blood of the innocent civilians in Somalia for the last 18 years and who want to import the same game into the people of the Somali region of Ethiopia,” the Ogadeni diaspora leaders mobilized to counteract the tour’s narrative. The diaspora recognized the delegation’s visit as an opportunity to educate and influence the international community. Community leaders issued a press release noting their “shock” that visas would be issued to these “perpetrators of crimes against humanity in the Ogaden Region.”
In contrast with the security language used by the officials from Ethiopia, those in the diaspora emphasized the language of human rights and international law: “We are also extremely concerned with the ongoing and widespread violations of human rights in the Ogaden, specifically the right to life, the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial and the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression.” An editorial on the diaspora-run website, Ogaden.com, named specific individuals within the visiting delegation and insisted that all were “directly responsible for the genocide that has, and continues to date, taken place in Ogaden.” The statement went on to urge those whose relatives are victims of the “Ogaden genocide” to lodge criminal complaints in Sweden and elsewhere against members of the delegation. “We beg these victims to use the European, American, or African legal systems to bring these perpetrators to justice.”
In return, the Ethiopian regime attempted to frame the issue as a response to “terrorism” and illegitimate interference in domestic affairs by Asmara. Addis Ababa asked Washington to add the ONLF and other opposition groups to the list of terrorist groups and therefore political activities and most importantly fundraising remained legal in the United States. The US declined. The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs saw this as a double-standard on terrorism, where terrorists who targeted Africans were not treated as seriously as terrorists who targeted Americans. A pro-EPRDF diaspora website even asked why “Ethiopia’s most wanted terrorist roam America freely!”
The struggle to determine how the violence in the Ogaden was understood internationally was deeply contested, involving the ONLF, the Ethiopian government and key figures in multiple diasporas. Each of these actors sought to influence important governments, international organizations, and transnational advocacy groups. All recognized that the outcome of the armed struggle would be determined in part by the reaction of the United States and other international actors. The transnational dimensions of the civil war in the Ogaden are fundamental to conflict dynamics and key to understanding the main parties and their strategies. As is true throughout the networked world today, actors and processes that are based in communities that are geographically dispersed and linked through transnational networks shape local conflicts and politics.