Ethiopia at tipping point as Congress mulls human rights bill
Ethiopia has been under a state of emergency decree since October 2016. That decree imposes “draconian restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly that go far beyond what is permissible under international law.” There has been a significant deterioration in human rights violations in Ethiopia over the past decade.
For over a decade, Representatives Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) and the late Donald Payne (D-N.J.) toiled tirelessly to pass a bill promoting democracy and human rights accountability in Ethiopia. In 2007, HR 2003, co-sponsored by 85 members, passed the House.
That bill sought to promote human rights, democracy, judicial independence, press freedom and counterterrorism cooperation; and it strongly urged release of all political prisoners. The bill died in the Senate, supposedly due to a hold placed by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
In February, Representative Smith introduced H.Res. 128 to “support respect for human rights and encourage inclusive governance” in Ethiopia. Last Week, Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced S.Res. 168, co-sponsored by 14 senators, which mirrors the House version.
In a statement, Cardin cautioned “partnering with the Ethiopian government on counterterrorism does not mean that we will stay silent when it abuses its own people.” Rubio underscored the “critical” need for the U.S. to remain “vocal in condemning Ethiopia’s human rights abuses against its own people.”
During the March 9 hearing on the H.Res. 128, Smith stated that there are “at least 10,000 political prisoners” in the country. He condemned the arbitrary imprisonment of opposition party leaders, criminalization of journalism under an “antiterrorism law” and the absence of the rule of law and “lack of due process in Ethiopian courts”.
Ranking member Karen Bass (D-Calif.) also underscored the “steady assault on the human and civil rights of citizens” and the deprivation of the “right of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression” in Ethiopia.
In its 2017 report on Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the large-scale “crack-down” by “Ethiopian security forces” against “largely peaceful demonstrations, killing more than 500 people.” HRW also documented that, “Security forces arrested tens of thousands of students, teachers, opposition politicians, health workers, and those who sheltered or assisted fleeing protesters.” HRW’s findings are corroborated by the U.S. State Department and Freedom House.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ethiopia ranked fourth on is 2015 list of the 10 Most Censored Countries and is the fifth-worst jailer of journalists worldwide. In May 2010, the ruling regime in Ethiopia claimed to have won 99.6 percent of the parliamentary seats. In 2015, it claimed 100 percent of the seats.
The ruling regime in Ethiopia has refused all requests for an independent human rights inquiry by U.N. special rapporteurs. Similar calls by the European parliament, the African Commission and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights have fallen on deaf ears.
Despite a history of massive human rights violations, the Obama administration has provided unwavering political and financial support to the ruling regime in Ethiopia. When Obama visited Ethiopia in July 2015, he anointed that regime, which claimed to have won all parliamentary seats, “democratically elected.” Between 2010-16, the U.S. has provided well over $5 billion to Ethiopia, making it the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid in Africa.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a speech to State Department employees announced that, “Guiding all of our foreign policy actions are our fundamental values: our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated.”
In a speech of 6,511 words, Tillerson devoted a stunning 1,057 words to talk about American values and their role in guiding the future of American foreign policy. Tillerson declared the way “we represent our values” is “by conditioning our policy engagements on people adopting certain actions as to how they treat people”.
Human rights represent the rock-solid foundation of the American Republic as eloquently proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and implemented in the Bill of Rights. Without Eleanor Roosevelt, there would have been no Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
President Jimmy Carter rightly affirmed in his farewell address that, “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America.” In a 2012 N.Y. Times op-ed, Carter wondered if the U.S. had abdicated its moral leadership in the arena of international human rights.
The pending human rights bill is judiciously crafted to help advance human rights protections, promote democratic shared governance and institutionalize accountability and transparency in Ethiopia by improving oversight and monitoring of U.S. assistance. Congress should pass it.
There a quiet riot, if not a creeping civil war, taking place in Ethiopia today. The massive uprisings and resistance in the Oromiya and Amhara regions of the country over the past year and the militarized response backed by an emergency decree is merely one indication of the downward spiral into a vortex of civil strife compounded by muted ethnic hatred and hankering for revenge.
There are deep grievances against the ruling regime than cannot be papered over by an emergency decree. With claims of 100 percent election victory, the regime suffers from a serious legitimacy deficit, which creates conditions for violent and nonviolent resistance. Ethiopia today is at a tipping point.
Passage of a human rights and inclusive governance bill will go a long way in staving off widespread internecine conflict in Ethiopia. By insisting on structural reforms, the bill creates the necessary conditions for peaceful political dialogue among contending groups and helps open political spaces for peaceful change.
For instance, the provisions in the bill demanding repeal of the draconian “anti-terrorism” and “civil society” laws could help open the political space for dialogue and negotiations. The alternative to passage of the human rights bill is for the U.S. to watch idly as the slow burning fuse inches closer to the Ethiopian powder keg.
*Alemayehu (Al) Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, with research interests in African law and human rights. He is a constitutional lawyer and senior editor of the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies.