By Habtamu Dugo
About 2500 Oromo-Americans traveled to the United States Capital Washington DC from 38 states and Canada for three main reasons. They wanted to witness the historic attention given to the Oromo by the United States Congress through the bi-partisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) briefing on the deteriorating human rights conditions in Oromia and Ethiopia. Secondly they showed up to protest US assistance to the Ethiopian government and to demand action from Congress and the White House on ongoing state-led crimes against humanity in Oromia and elsewhere. They intended to renew the spirit of internal solidarity and unity in the face of unfolding tragedies at home and they succeeded.
Since the onset of peaceful demonstrations in Oromia on November 12, 2015, Oromo communities in the United Sates staged three rallies, including the one that took place after the briefing on Capitol Hill on April 19. This time, however, they did not go home feeling that the United States government does not want to listen to them. They learned through the briefing, which was the first and largest of its kind, that the United States government has started listening to them face to face.
You could look around Rayburn House Office Building, the hallways and outside of it, and you feel much more than a hot Spring temperature coupled with body heat in unusually overcrowded venue—you feel people learned years of outcry for human rights had just started to be recognized and many were validated by this modest first step in what might be a long journey to lobby and secure actions of stopping massive human rights violations in the homeland from the United States Congress.
The next day the Oromo communities received breaking news that the United Sates Senate released a resolution condemning the “killings of peaceful protesters and excessive use of force by Ethiopian security forces…” The next sections of this news analysis will examine the significance of the newly-earned briefing and the resolution and their implications on the behavior of the TPLF-controlled Ethiopian regime.
The Briefing: ‘The Beginning of a Sustained Pressure’
Consistent with the event’s purpose and the mandate of the TLHRC, the participants of the briefing examined the human rights situation in Ethiopia and made several useful recommendations regarding the roles the United States can play in promoting democracy, human rights, and stability in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison and Executive Committee Member of TLHRC promised the audience that he would raise his concerns about human rights violations in Oromia with the Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States.
However, an audience member expressed his mistrust that the Ethiopian ambassador will not help stop the human rights abuses and asked Ellison to pass the message from the briefing onto the President Obama instead. Ellison reassured the audience: “I will be speaking to the Ethiopian Ambassador about my constituent, people who live in my district. A lot of times when I talk to foreign ambassadors about a human rights problem in their country, they sometimes say why you are interfering in the inner workings of our country. But in this case if that issue comes up, I will say, I am speaking on behalf of my constituents. I did not go out looking for problems in Ethiopia, they came to my office door-step.” Representative Ellison sent out several tweets, including this one: “hundreds of people from Oromo Community here to fight for human rights in Ethiopia.”
Addressing Oromo community from her constituency in Minnesota, Congresswoman McCollum also made strong remarks that she ‘stands up for human rights.’ McCollum underscored, “The Ethiopian Government must be held accountable and it will take pressure from Congress and the Obama Administration to end the repression of the people of Oromia.” The Oromo managed to enlist the support of Congressional Delegation from Minnesota in their campaign for human rights and self-government in Oromia. It’s fair to say that these representatives can predict that Ethiopian authorities will try to schmooze them saying all is well in Oromia, but they are going to engage the ambassador because of a matter of procedure. The best thing for the Congressman to do is to resort to the use of US and international legal mechanism to ensure civilians are safe from state-led violence.
The Ethiopian Government must be held accountable and it will take pressure from Congress and the Obama Administration to end the repression of the people of Oromia.
Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum.
After congratulating the audience and the organizers of the briefing, which he described as “what has got to be one of the largest crowds for a briefing in Rabyburn building,” Adotei Akwei, the Managing Director for Amnesty International USA, spoke about the organization’s experience and challenges reporting human rights abuses in Ethiopia since 1969. He said securing the briefing “is no small achievement.” Amnesty International has been doing human rights reporting in Ethiopia since 1969. Akwei reassured the audience that the briefing was “the beginning hopefully of a sustained pressure that would lead to the kinds of changes that we would like to see in Ethiopia.” Kwei told audience that Amnesty was banned by several Ethiopian regimes in the past and that it is also banned from the country by the current Ethiopian regime.Mohammed Ademo, a journalist with Al Jazeera America, provided a rich context to the briefing stressing that the root causes of the protests are economic, social and political exclusion and marginalization of the Oromo people. Ademo addressed many important issues, including the fact that Oromia has been under “emergency military rule for the last three months,” which he said has the consequence of “further eroding the federal system which is holding the country together.” Further showing the culture of impunity by Ethiopia’s security forces, Ademo said, “Parents have been forced to sign papers absolving the government of any responsibility if their children are killed in future protests.” Ademo recommended that “Congress should immediately suspend all counter-terrorism funding to Ethiopia.”
During the briefing, Anuradha Mittal, founder and Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, brought to the fore important “land-related human rights issues,” which are among the key root causes of the protests in Oromia and many regions of Ethiopia’s south. According to Mittal, Ethiopia is the largest benefactor of development aid from the United States receiving $665 million.
Mittal showed that foreign aid is funding human rights violations, including the removal of indigenous populations from their ancestral lands without consent or adequate compensation. “A cornerstone of USAID activity in Ethiopia was support for the GTP, a key element of which was the relocation of 1.5 million people from areas targeted for industrial plantations under the government’s “villagization” scheme.”
Those who have been charged as terrorists under the law include newspaper editors, indigenous leaders, land rights activists, bloggers, political opposition members, and students. The Anti Terrorism laws are being used by the Ethiopian government not against the terrorists, but to curb human rights of its own citizens.
Mittal highlighted the myriad of ways in which the Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism proclamation is used as tool of repression to stifle dissent. “Those who have been charged as terrorists under the law include newspaper editors, indigenous leaders, land rights activists, bloggers, political opposition members, and students. The Anti-Terrorism laws are being used by the Ethiopian government not against the terrorists, but to curb human rights of its own citizens.” She made recommendations to Congress “to ensure proper monitoring of the situation on the ground, and where necessary, the redirection of funds.”The briefing is a significant first step in securing other actions by the United States government, including possible Congressional Hearing, a resolution and a possible bill or law to stop atrocities in the country and to institute a new representative, inclusive and accountable government that respects the human and democratic rights of peoples. The new social contract is envisioned to transform people from subjecthood to citizenship with rights and obligations. The briefing can also serve as a channel of informing members of Congress and leaders of different branches of US government and agencies to take a stand on the crimes against humanity in Oromia and elsewhere in the country.
Two Oromo individuals who suffered severe torture and trauma in the hands of TPLF/EPRDF government also testified about what happened to them bringing audience to tears and shock.
Urji Dhaba, a female torture survivor, brought participants and audiences of the briefing to tears with the story that she told about cruel sexual torture that was perpetrated on her because of her ethnic origin as an Oromo woman and because of her political views. Ms. Dhaba said, “Our students are being killed in schools and schools are disrupted. They rape wives in front of their husbands at gunpoint. I am Urji Dhaba. I faced torture in prison. Interrogators broke bottles inside my private part. They melted candles in my private part as well. I was peeing irregularly through my abdomen for the two years. I was passing urine into a bag. Because of the torture on my body (private part) I am still ashamed and fearful of walking in public and going about my daily life. Right now in Oromia what happened to me is happening to five to six-year-old children. As women how do you feel if what happened to me happened to you?”
Durata’a, a male torture survivor added a concrete human rights abuse by showing his scars to the speakers on the stage and the audience. “My name is Durata’a. What were are telling here is not false; we are telling you the truth. Look at my hands and look at my leg (showing mutilated fingers and a wrist from torture). This was done to me by the current regime. They killed my wife and my two children along her. The regime destroyed our private property.”
Some audience members made comments reinforcing the statements of the participants and suggesting the need for the United States to stop supporting the Tigrean-minority-owned government of Ethiopia. Habtamu Dugo said the crimes unfolding against civilians in Oromia is genocide as proven by the intent of Ethiopia’s officials who called Oromo as a whole “devils” and “terrorists” and then put Oromia under martial law. He urged Congress to pay attention to the crimes against humanity in Oromia. He also warned about the possibility of Ethiopia becoming like South Sudan or Somalia if the United States continues transactions as usual with the minority TPLF elites ruling Ethiopia at gunpoint.
US Senate Resolution and What It Means
Bonnie Holcomb, Oromo Studies Association Board Chair and US anthropologist who studied the Oromo for decades, recognized the significance of the introduction of “Senate Resolution supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia,” as “a positive outcome from Oromo protests.” Senators Cardin, Rubio and 10 others US Senators introduced a resolution condemning “Ethiopia’s crackdown on civil society.” This came a day after the briefing and the massive rally that proceeded from Congressional offices to the White House on April 19, 2016.
The resolution condemned “A) the killings of peaceful protesters and excessive use of force by Ethiopia’s security forces; B) arrest and detentions of journalists, students, activists and political leaders…; C) abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle political and civil dissent and journalistic freedoms.” The resolution calls for the US Secretary of State “to conduct a review of US security assistance to Ethiopia in light of allegations that Ethiopian security forces have killed civilians.” It also calls on “the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development to improve oversight and accountability of the United States Assistance to Ethiopia…”
The resolution calls on the relevant US Government agencies to review programs dealing with Ethiopia show significant shift of the Senate opinion on Ethiopia, which has been static for decades.
The most problematic and likely unattainable points of the resolution are the calls on the Ethiopian government to: “ a) to halt the use of excessive force by security forces; b) to conduct a full, credible and transparent investigation into the killings and instances of excessive use of force that took place as a result of the protests that took place in the Oromia region and hold security forces accountable for wrongdoing through public proceeding;…”
Ethiopian Government Can’t Be a Credible Investigator of Its Own Crimes
Tasking the Ethiopian government with credible investigation in the killings is most unattainable because the Ethiopian government will either conduct sham/staged investigations or ignore the calls altogether because state leaders are not going to provide pieces of evidence that will be used to help bring crimes against humanity indictment and charges in the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice at the Hague. There is also nothing in the resolution about the next course of action if Ethiopia fails to comply with the calls—not even an overt threat of cutting US assistance.
The resolution echoes blind trust by many Western diplomats for the Ethiopian government to carry out credible investigations into its own crimes. This approach is simply wrong and here are further reasons why the Ethiopian government is the wrong candidate for this task. Over the last 5 months since the second onset of Oromo peaceful demonstrations in Oromia, the Ethiopian government has shown utter disregard for international calls to halt the violence and continued with its genocidal activities in the state. The regime ignored the EU resolution and continued massive repressions as usual.
Since there is nothing biding in the simple Senate resolution, the regime is likely to continue with the killings and excessive use of force against civilians. Of the four types of US legislations, the purpose of simple resolutions, ‘designated S. Res.’, are “to “express nonbinding positions of the Senate or to deal with the Senate’s internal affairs, such as the creation of a special committee. They do not require action by the House of Representatives.”
It is good to be reasonably optimistic that this resolution will be followed by actions. However, it is also good to remember that a much more binding legislation, “Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007” was killed in the senate after passing the house. As a result, Ethiopia never saw the democracy and respect for human rights the document promised. HR 2003 was considered a first major step in promoting democracy, human rights and rule of law in Ethiopia. Peoples hope were raised and then denied.
The track record of the current regime shows that although its officials pretend to be positive about changing destructive policies when they meet with European and American diplomats, they will forget what they promised a few minutes later and go back to human rights violations as usual. Whether EU, UN or the US State Department urge the Ethiopian officials to investigate their own atrocity crimes and bring security forces who have perpetrated them to justice, the regime is unable to carry out any independent investigation because the regime and the security forces are one and the same. In fact, the security forces perpetrate crimes against humanity at instructions from Tigrean civilians and military leaders.
Nowhere in the history of crimes against humanity or genocide has a perpetrator been able to investigate its own crimes and delivered justice. The human rights violations, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic-cleansing happening in Ethiopia must be independently investigated by the UN, international human rights organizations, and donors to the regime if the crimes are to be stopped and punished. Then not only should the security forces face the full force of international laws, but their bosses—the political and military leadership—must be indicted and tried in international courts.
After the Resolution, Ethiopia Resumes Human Rights Violations
Just after the congressional briefing and the resolution, the regime in Ethiopia continued violent crackdowns, including killings, torture, rape and atrocities against Oromo civilians. It’s ignoring the call to stop violent crackdown. It is also abusing the anti-terrorism proclamation to charge innocent Oromo protesters, students, farmers, opposition leaders and members and journalists.
For instance, Ethiopia-based Human Rights Project reported on April 2, 2016, that 20 Addis Ababa University Oromo students who were among dozens who peacefully protested in front of the US Embassy in Addis Ababa were charged with the so-called crime of “protesting in front of embassies and foreign institutions and inciting violence. In fact, the students did not incite any violence, but holding placards/slogans and chanting in front of the embassy was considered a crime by the Ethiopian government.
Yet in another saga of continued disregard for calls to stop abusing the anti-terror law against dissidents, the Ethiopian government charged a prominent Oromo Federalist Congress opposition party leader Bekele Gerba and 21 others with terrorism after months of detention without due process and torture in jails. These members and leaders of OFC including Gurmessa Ayano Wayessa, Dejene Tafa Galata, Addisu Bulala, Abdeta Negasa Faye and others were charged with terrorism with Bekele Gerba, according to breaking news by Addis Standard, an Addis/Finfinne-based publication.
The crimes against humanity continued in Oromia. In one instance, Lami Jarso, a Twitter user reported that “four Ethiopian soldiers gang-raped two young women in Waliso town early this week. Victims are in hospital.” This account was corroborated by other social media users.
On April 17, 2016, in a statement titled, “Ethiopia: TPLF Agenda of Reducing the Oromo Population Must Be Stopped,” The Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa reported “terrorists and criminal attack targeting Oromo youth and children, and even pregnant women have continued unabated…” Since the regime’s declaration of an unofficial martial law on February 26, 2016, the Oromia Regional State has been divided into 8 military zones each led by Tigrean military generals. HRLHA observes that the killings, maiming, imprisonment, torture, and rape, among other crimes, became more arbitrary and widespread after Oromia was brought under the military control of Tigrean generals. 90% of the generals leading the crimes against humanity are of ethnic Tigrean origin by design. The regime trusts only loyal co-ethnics.
HRLHA, which calls the atrocities taking place in Oromia, “genocide and ethnic-cleansing,” provides details:
On February 27, 2016 a seven- months pregnant mother of six, living in the West Arsi zone in Oromia state in Ethiopia, was shot down in her home by security forces who had come to her home looking for her husband. Another six- months pregnant woman Shashitu Mekonen was also killed and thrown into the bush in Horro Guduru Wallega, Oromia~
The Agiazi murderers intensified their repressions in all corners of Oromia. Since the November 2015 peaceful protest began, over 400 Oromo nationals have been killed, over fifty thousand (50,000) arrested and placed in different police stations, concentration camps, and military camps. Unknown numbers of students have been confined in the Xolay concentration camp where they are exposed to different diseases because of poor diets and sanitation. No medical attention has been given them and a number of prisoners are dying each day, according to information leaked from Xolay concentration camp. This represents the systematic elimination of the Oromo young generation.HRLHA states many of the victims of the atrocities have been children. Security forces also killed many pregnant women in their homes. “On February 27, 2016 a seven- months pregnant mother of six, living in the West Arsi zone in Oromia state in Ethiopia, was shot down in her home by security forces who had come to her home looking for her husband. Another six- months pregnant woman Shashitu Mekonen was also killed and thrown into the bush in Horro Guduru Wallega, Oromia.” Unlike the US and EU resolutions and comments by some diplomats, the HRLH calls for independent investigation of the atrocities by the UN.
Senators Cardin and Rubio expressed that they were shocked by such brutal actions of the Ethiopian government and condemned them. Senator Rubio said, “Peaceful protestors and activists have been arrested, tortured and killed in Ethiopia for simply exercising their basic rights. I condemn these abuses and the Ethiopian government’s stunning disregard for the fundamental rights of the Ethiopian people. I urge the Obama Administration to prioritize respect for human rights and political reforms in the U.S. relationship with Ethiopia.”
The Oromo must continue to mount sustained pressure on US elected officials to act on the resolution and the briefing and to terminate direct assistance to the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front, aka the government of Ethiopia.
Bonnie Holcomb rightly observes that both the briefing and the resolution are the outcomes of Oromo protests, “There is nothing as powerful as the idea whose time has come. The Oromo time has come. Spectacular success on Capitol Hill honors Oromo Protests.”
As Amnesty’s Akwei reminded audiences at the venue, what happened was just the beginning of “a marathon,” to engage the Congress and the White House to make changes in archaic foreign policy doctrines that have always sided with brutal dictatorships in Ethiopia from Haile Selassie down to the current regime.
The degree to which elected US officials can take actions on the genocide policies of the Ethiopian government in Oromia depends on the strength of the struggle on the ground in Oromia. And people let their guard down until the day of freedom.
Realizing that a successful one-day event is not sufficient, Oromo communities have created strategies of direct engagement with Congress and the White House. According to a document handed to me in the Hallway of the Rayburn building, the Oromo have plans to pressure the US Senate and the House of Representatives to achieve the following. Advocacy activities with Senate include contacting Senators and urging them to cosponsor, and pass a resolution, which has already been accomplished. There remain major advocacy activities with the House of Representatives, including remaining line-up of advocacy activities, “ask for hearing to be scheduled and an independent investigation launched by the Lantos Commission or Subcommittee for Africa; ask Congress to enforce the US Foreign Assistance Act; and ask Congress to enforce Arms Exports Control Acts.”
While the current advocacy strategies are well-thought-out, there is a need for Oromo community leaders in the United States to coordinate their efforts and mobilize people for what I call, “the advocacy of scale,” in order to achieve the engagement goals laid out in the document mentioned. Every effort must be built on the principle of complementarity and cooperation rather than competition and rivalry.
Habtamu Dugo is a US-based professor, independent journalist and conflict analyst. He is the author of “US Interventions and Conflict in Multinational Ethiopia.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org