Skip to content

Obama Human Rights

Delivering on Donald Payne’s Human Rights Legacy

Alemayehu G Mariam

Donald Payne Was a Drum Major for Democracy and Human Rights

Grassroots Ethiopian human rights groups and activists have been stunned by the death last week of  Donald Payne, our strongest ally and advocate in the U.S. Congress. His passing marks a major setback to the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia and Africa. But Don Payne has left us a rich legacy of human rights advocacy and legislative action spanning over two decades. It is now our burden — indeed our moral duty — to build, to expand and to deliver on that legacy.

Over the past week, many Ethiopians who have worked with Don Payne and followed his labor of love in Ethiopia and Africa over the years have been asking what Diaspora Ethiopians could do individually or as a community to honor his memory and legacy. They all have great ideas: We should set up a scholarship fund in his name at his alma mater. We should sponsor a human rights conference in his name. We should contribute money in his name to his favorite charity. We should have a special occasion named in his honor. We should have a special memorial church service for him and so on.

These are commendable things to do in his memory; but I believe the greatest honor we can bestow upon our friend Donald Payne is to deliver on his rich legacy with steely resolve. Don Payne’s legacy is the active promotion of democracy and human rights in Africa. His singular legacy in Ethiopia is his unrelenting effort to link human rights to such core American values as the rule of law, accountability and transparency.

Donald Payne lived a life of public service both in his congressional district in New Jersey and in his larger “continental district” of Africa. He crisscrossed the continent to stand up and speak up for Africa’s voiceless, faceless and namelesswho continue to suffer in quiet desperation under ruthless dictatorships. He never sought public recognition or accolade for what he did for Africans and in Africa. He never compalined about the hardships and risks he faced, and patiently deflected the slings and arrows of African dictators who never missed an opportunity to vilify and denounce him for his unwavering stand on democracy and human rights.

Don Payne was a person Dr. Martin Luther King would have described as a drum major for justice, for peace and for righteousness. We know him to be a drum major (leader) for democracy, human rights and freedom in Africa. He was a drum major for free and fair elections in Ethiopia. He was a drum major for an independent judiciary and for press freedom. He was a drum major for the unconditional release of all Ethiopian political prisoners from secret and regular prisons. He was a drum major for stability, democracy, and economic development in the Horn of Africa. He was a drum major for humanitarian assistance and economic development of Africa. He was a drum major for strengthening Ethio-American relations and collaboration in the war on terror. Donald Payne was a drum major for democracy and accountability in Ethiopia.

Delivering on Don Payne’s Legacy

Delivering on Don Payne’s legacy is delivering on America’s human rights promises in Africa, and particularly in Ethiopia.  In December 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton clearly set out the foundations of American human rights policy. She said “the idea of human rights and freedoms” is not a “slogan mocked by half the world” and “it must not be mere froth floating on the subsiding waters of faith.” Human rights are universal values. There are no Ethiopian, African, European, American or other national forms of human rights. “Democracy, freedom, human rights have come to have a definite meaning to the people of the world which we must not allow any nation to so change that they are made synonymous with suppression and dictatorship.” Secretary Clinton urged that the “basis of the new world order must be universal respects for human rights.” Those rights “are simple and easily understood: freedom of speech and a free press; freedom of religion and worship; freedom of assembly and the right of petition; the right of men to be secure in their homes and free from unreasonable search and seizure and from arbitrary arrest and punishment.” These rights are the bedrock principles of human existence anywhere. “Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of information, freedom of assembly–these are not just abstract ideals to us; they are tools with which we create a way of life, a way of life in which we can enjoy freedom.”

The key to democracy is the opportunity for people to make a free choice about their system of governance. Secretary Clinton said, “ The final expression of the opinion of the people with us is through free and honest elections, with valid choices on basic issues and candidates.” These principles are not mere platitudes; they are principles to be preserved, promoted and defended. In countries whose “governments are able but unwilling to make the changes their citizens deserve”, Secretary Clinton said, America “must vigorously press leaders to end repression, while supporting those within societies who are working for change…  and support those courageous individuals and organizations who try to protect people and who battle against the odds to plant the seeds for a more hopeful future.” She proclaimed that there are  four pillars that support the Obama Administration’s human rights policy:

First, a commitment to human rights starts with universal standards and with holding everyone accountable to those standards, including ourselves…. Second, we must be pragmatic and agile in pursuit of our human rights agenda, not compromising on our principles, but doing what is most likely to make them real…. When we run up against a wall we will not retreat with resignation but respond with strategic resolve to find another way to effect change and improve people’s lives…. Third, we support change driven by citizens and their communities. The project of making human rights a human reality cannot be just a project for governments. It requires cooperation among individuals and organizations—within communities and across borders—who are committed to securing lives of dignity for all who share the bonds of humanity…. Fourth, we will  not forget that positive change must be reinforced and strengthened where hope is on the rise and… where human lives hang in the balance we must do what we can to tilt that balance toward a better future.

Holding the Obama Administration Accountable for Human Rights

Secretary Clinton said that human rights accountability begins at home with “ourselves”. What has the Obama Administration done to preserve, protect and promote human rights in Africa in general and particularly Ethiopia? What did the U.S. do when Meles Zenawi claimed electoral victory of 99.6 percent in May 2010? Has the U.S. “vigorously pressed” Zenawi to hold free and fair elections? HAs the U.S. sought the release the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Zenawi’s secret and regular prisons? What did the U.S. do when Zenawi decimated the independent press in Ethiopia one by one and electronically jammed the Amharic broadcasts of the Voice of America to Ethiopia?

Responding With Strategic Resolve

Secretary Clinton said that “when we run up against a wall” of repression and see human rights trashed, “we will not retreat with resignation but respond with strategic resolve” to help victims of abuse. In his Statement celebrating World Press Freedom Day (May 2010), President Obama said, “Last year was a bad one for the freedom of the press worldwide.  While people gained greater access than ever before to information through the Internet, cell phones and other forms of connective technologies, governments like Ethiopia… curtailed freedom of expression by limiting full access to and use of these technologies.” Today, Zenawi’s regime has gone beyond limiting access to “connective technologies” to shuttering newspapers and disconnecting  broadcasts of the Voice of America from the people of Ethiopia. Has the U.S. responded with “strategic resolve” when it ran smack against Zenawi’s stonewall of press repression and free expression in Ethiopia?

Supporting Change Driven by Citizens and Their Communities

Secretary Clinton said that “human rights” cannot become “a human reality” unless it is possible for “individuals and organizations within communities and across borders” to work cooperatively in the cause of human rights. In February 2010, U.S. Undersecretary of State Maria Otero raised concerns with Zenawi over the so-called civil society organization law which Otero asserted “threatened the role of civil society” in Ethiopia. According to one report, as a result of this “law”, the “the number of CSOs [civil society organizations] has been reduced from about 4600 to about 1400 in a period of three months in early 2010.  Staff members have been reduced by 90% or more among many of those organizations that survive according to my informants.” What has the U.S. done to “support citizen driven change” in Ethiopia as CSOs are wiped out?What has the U.S. done to support “courageous individuals and organizations” in Ethiopia, including civic society and human rights organizations, “who try to protect people”?

Tilting the Balance Toward a Better Future

Secretary Clinton said the U.S. will weigh in and work towards a better future “where hope is on the rise and human lives hang in the balance”. In the May 2010 election, the U.S. had an opportunity to help steer Ethiopia towards a better future. Immediately after the election, the U.S. issued a strong statement:

We have a broad and comprehensive relationship with Ethiopia, but we have expressed our concerns on democracy and governance directly to the government… Measures the Ethiopian government take following these elections will influence the future direction of US-Ethiopian relations… To the extent that Ethiopia values the relationship with the United States, then we think they should heed this very direct and strong message… We will continue to engage this government, but we will make clear that there are steps that it needs to take to improve democratic institutions.

Nearly two years after that election, countless numbers of individuals have been detained under a so-called anti-terrorism law, the independent press has been stamped out and a full-fledged police state established. Is the U.S. tilting the balance in Ethiopia toward a better future or bending it backwards to perpetuate a vicious cycle of the past into the present?

H.R. 2003- Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act Redux

hr 2003Long before Secretary Clinton eloquently articulated America’s human rights policy, Donald Payne, and before him another New Jersey Congressman, Christopher Smith, were toiling away to make it a reality. In fact, H.R. 2003 (passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in October 2007) neatly and effortlessly combined all four pillars of the Obama Administration’s human rights policy. It is precisely the type of legislative action that could give real teeth to the lofty words of Secretary Clinton.

We can best honor Don Payne’s life and his legacy of human rights by re-committing ourselves to the re-introduction and passage of a bill that incorporates all of the elements of H.R. 2003. What was in H.R. 2003? The Congressional Research Service, a well-respected nonpartisan arm of the Library of Congress, summarized that the bill is intended to

(1) support human rights, democracy, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, peacekeeping capacity building, and economic development in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia; (2) collaborate with Ethiopia in the Global War on Terror; (3) seek the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Ethiopia; (4) foster stability, democracy, and economic development in the region; (5) support humanitarian assistance efforts, especially in the Ogaden region; and (6) strengthen U.S.-Ethiopian relations.

Human rights accountability legislation for Ethiopia began in earnest in the U.S. Congress following the officially documented massacre of at least 193 victims and wounding of 763 others in the afteramth of the May 2005 elections. In November 2005, Congressman Christopher Smith of New Jersey, then-Chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa, introduced H.R. 4423 (“Ethiopia Consolidation Act of 2005”). That bill focused on, among other things, the use of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and provision of resources to Ethiopia to support civil society institutions, independent human rights monitoring and democratic capacity building for political parties, police and security personnel, development assistance for the construction of dams and irrigation systems and suspension of joint security activities until certification is made that Ethiopia is observing international human rights standards. H.R. 4423 morphed into H.R. 5680 (“Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006”). In 2007 when Congressman Payne chaired the Africa Subcommittee, the bill was renumbered to H.R. 2003 (“Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007”) and passed the House in October. It is manifest that the legislative language and provisions in H.R. 2003 offer the perfect vehicle for effective implementation of all four pillars of U.S. human rights policy in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.

In concluding her human rights policy speech, Secretary Clinton described the work that is required to protect human rights with special poingancy:

In the end, this isn’t just about what we do; it’s about who we are. And we cannot be the people we are — people who believe in human rights—if we opt out of this fight. Believing in human rights means committing ourselves to action. When we sign up for the promise of rights that apply everywhere, to everyone, the promise of rights that protect and enable human dignity, we also sign up for the hard work of making that promise a reality.

Upon the death of Congressman Payne, we can rekindle life in H.R. 2003 and finally transform lofty words into practical and concrete actions that will advance American human rights policy in Ethiopia and Africa. We can certainly “opt out of the fight” for human rights in Ethiopia, but then we cannot pretend to believe in human rights. Or we can “sign up” to continue the fight for human rights and human dignity in Ethiopia.

Fighting for a bill patterend after H.R. 2003 will not be an easy task or a fair fight. It will be a steep uphill battle for us as the commanding heights are controlled by some of the mightiest lobbyists in the world who will defend any tinpot dictator for $50,000 a month. Fighting against a formidable invisible army of highly paid lobbyists from “K” Street who lurk and silently creep on the granite floors of Congress to peddle their influence will be very hard. But we faced off with that Army last time on Capitol Hill; and against all odds, we managed to win approval of H.R. 2003 in the House.But fighting in the cause of justice and righteousness has never been easy. It is always hard, very hard. So now Ethiopians, particularly those in the U.S., face a simple choice: sign up for the hard work — to do the heavy lifting — to make Donald Payne’s dream of an Ethiopia democracy and accountability act a reality; or “opt out of the fight” by cutting and running.

Keep Don Payne’s promise of an Ethiopia democracy and accountability act alive!

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: and

Amharic translations of recent Monday commentaries may be found at:

Steel Vises, Clenched Fists and Closing Walls (Part IV)

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

Note: This is the fourth installment in a series of commentaries I intend to offer on U.S. foreign policy (or lack thereof as some would argue) in Ethiopia. In this piece, I argue that the Obama Administration’s recently announced Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative to go after corruption in Africa and elsewhere could prove to be an extraordinarily effective tool to improve human rights on the continent. By focusing on corruption, the Obama Administration could reasonably demand good governance practices of African “leaders” while maintaining cooperation on counter-terrorism and security issues.

The Africa Kleptocracy Project

In June 2008, when presidential candidate Barack Obama was a few months away from electoral victory, I warned those dictators who survive by pickpocketing the American tax payer of the arrival of a “new sheriff” in town and advised them to clean up their acts and “shape up”[1]: “A new sheriff is coming to town. He does not carry a six-shooter but carries a law book. And he’s laying down the law for all the tin-pot dictators of the world.” In April 2009, I “read the tea leaves”[2] again and urged Africa’s panhandling dictators to “ride out before the big roundup” because the “new sheriff and posse are in town.” I am glad to say I read the tea leaves just right.

Barack’s Posse was a little late but finally showed up in Kampala, Uganda last week to lay down the law to Africa’s top kleptocrats (thieves masquerading as “heads of state”) gathered at their annual summit. President Obama’s “undersheriffs”, Attorney General (A.G) Eric Holder and Johnnie Carson, U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, told the huddled kleptocrats that a special Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative (KARI) has been established in the U.S. Justice Department to recover the money they and their criminal cohorts have stolen from their citizens and restore it to its intended use:

I am pleased to announce that the U.S. Department of Justice is launching a new Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative aimed at combating large-scale foreign official corruption and recovering public funds for their intended – and proper – use: for the people of our nations. We’re assembling a team of prosecutors who will focus exclusively on this work and build upon efforts already underway to deter corruption… I know that prosecution is not the only effective way to curb global corruption. We will continue to work with your governments to strengthen the entire judicial sector… We must also work with business leaders to encourage, ensure and enforce sound corporate governance. We should not, and must not settle for anything less… As many here have learned — often in painful and devastating ways — corruption imperils development, stability, competition and economic investment. It also undermines the promise of democracy… Like President Obama, I believe that the 21st century will be shaped by what happens here in Africa. Your security and prosperity, the health of your people and the strength of your civil society, will have a direct and profound impact on the world’s communities and on the advancement of human rights and human progress everywhere.

A couple of months ago, A.G. Holder addressing the 35-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris said:

Put simply, corruption undermines the promise of democracy. It imperils development, stability and faith in our markets. And it weakens the rule of law. Corruption erodes, even destroys, the faith of citizens in their governments. As I speak, a corrupt official somewhere is enjoying undeserved and illegal proceeds. He may be driving a brand-new luxury car. She may be filling her off-shore bank account with tainted cash. They may be traveling first-class on all-expenses-paid holidays. Bribery in international business, for example, may center on shell companies and wire transfers, but no matter where — or how — it happens, the corrosive result is the same: stymied development, lost confidence and distorted competition. The result is unfairness, not justice; the consequence is economic decay, not development.

African Kleptocrats as Organized Criminals (Mafia)

In my commentary “Africorruption, Inc.”, I argued that the business of African governments is corruption.[3] In other words, the majority of African “leaders” seize political power to operate sophisticated criminal enterprises to loot their national treasuries and resources. President Obama’s approach to dealing with corrupt African governments is consistent with the informed view that corruption is not only the lifeblood of African dictatorships but also the most important single factor that accounts for gross violations of human rights and violent suppression of democratic institutions on the continent. Just like any organized criminal enterprise, be they street-level or Mafia-style gangsters, African kleptocrats have used threats, fear, intimidation and violence to maintain and perpetuate their corrupt financial empires. In that context, A.G. Holder’s announcement was nothing short of breathtaking. It was as though he was addressing the national convention of the “Commissione” of all the Mafia families from New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Atlantic City, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In Kampala, he was talking directly to the African equivalents of the Godfathers of the Bonnano, Columbo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese crime families in one place. It was almost surreal.

Though A.G. Holder told the African kleptocrats that he has a posse of special corruption prosecutors saddled up, he omitted telling them what tools he would be using to bring them to justice. They can rest assured that he will be coming after them armed with the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (commonly referred to as the RICO Act or RICO; 18 U.S.C. § 1961–1968). RICO was originally enacted to prosecute the Mafia and others actively engaged in organized criminal activity. Over the years its use has been expanded to cover corporate and other crimes; and now its application is likely to be expanded even further to go after the corrupt and thieving African dictators who launder hundreds of millions of dollars every year in the U.S. buying businesses and homes and making “investments” in legitimate commercial enterprises. Section 1962 of RICO provides in part:

(a) It shall be unlawful for any person who has received any income derived, directly or indirectly, from a pattern of racketeering activity… to use or invest, directly or indirectly, any part of such income, or the proceeds of such income, in acquisition of any interest in, or the establishment or operation of, any enterprise which is engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce. (b)… through a pattern of racketeering activity… to acquire or maintain, directly or indirectly, any interest in or control of any enterprise which is engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce… (c) It shall be unlawful for any person employed by or associated with any enterprise engaged in, or the activities of which affect, interstate or foreign commerce, to conduct or participate, directly or indirectly, in the conduct of such enterprise’s affairs through a pattern of racketeering activity… (d) It shall be unlawful for any person to conspire to violate any of the provisions of subsection (a), (b), or (c) of this section.

Simply stated, African kleptocrats who rob their nations blind and bring their stolen loot to the U.S. to launder it will be tracked down and forced to disgorge and face jail time as well. What is potentially devastating to African kleptocrats is the fact that a RICO charge could be brought not only against them, but also their associates, business partners, investors, and any others in the U.S. or elsewhere who “directly or indirectly” facilitate their criminal enterprises. The penalties are severe: up to $25,000 and 20 years in prison per racketeering count. The racketeers must give up all of the gains from the criminal activity including the hundreds of millions tucked away in U.S. banks. RICO also allows private individuals damaged by the racketeer to file a civil suit and collect treble (three times) damages if they are successful. Proving a RICO charge in court is considered to be relatively easy as it focuses on “patterns” of behavior as opposed to criminal acts. Since conspiracy is one of the charges that could be brought in a RICO case, the kleptocrats’ underlings, accountants, business associates and partners and collaborators could be prosecuted.

Fixing Human Rights Violations by Prosecuting Kleptocrats

A.G. Holder says the Obama Administration is committed to battling corruption as “one of the great struggles of our time.” Holder’s words, if translated into concrete action could have a huge impact not only on governance in Africa but also in improving human rights protections. Corruption is fundamentally a human rights issue. As Peter Eigen, founder and chairman of Transparency International has argued, “[C]orruption leads to a violation of human rights in at least three respects: corruption perpetuates discrimination, corruption prevents the full realisation of economic, social, and cultural rights, and corruption leads to the infringement of numerous civil and political rights. Beyond that, corruption undermines the very essence of the rule of law and destroys citizens’ trust in political leaders, public officials and political institutions.”

The fascinating thing about the Obama Administration’s approach is its creative use of U.S. criminal statutes to deal with African dictators as organized criminal enterprises. Simply stated, the Administration has decided to deal with African dictators as Mafia bosses! If the U.S. could effectively investigate, vigorously prosecute and aggressively seize the assets of Africa’s kleptocrats, the continent may finally begin to see significant improvements in human rights and governance, a dramatic reduction in corruption and generate significant resources from recovered assets for investment in infrastructure and other social programs for the African population.

As I have previously documented[3], Transparency International [TI] (the global coalition against corruption) in its 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) again bestowed upon Africa the dubious honor of being Kleptocracy Central, the continental home of the world’s most corrupt governments in the world. Leading the parade of kleptocracies are the regimes in Ethiopia, the Sudan, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya and the warlords of Somalia. These countries scored an atrocious 3.0 or less on the index. In certain countries, the corruption trend appears to be irreversible. For instance, in 2002, Ethiopia received a dismal score of 3.5 on the corruption index. In 2009, eight years after the ruling regime had established the “Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission” (FEAC) with great fanfare and after periodic reports of “major accomplishments” in combating corruption, Ethiopia’s score dropped to an abysmal 2.7.

Publicly-owned assets are acquired in Ethiopia by regime-supporters or officials through illegal transactions and fraud. Banks loan millions of dollars to front enterprises owned by regime officials or their supporters without sufficient or proper collateral. Businessmen must pay huge bribes or kickbacks to participate in public contracting and procurement. Those involved in the import/export business complain of shakedowns by corrupt customs officials. The judiciary is thoroughly corrupted through political interference and manipulation as evidenced in the various high profile political prosecutions. Ethiopians on holiday visits driving about town complain of shakedowns by police thugs on the streets. Even the U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelley stated last year that the U.S. is investigating allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current prime minister’s party.”

Over the past three years, high profile corruption cases in Ethiopia have been reported in the media. In one case, it was established that “USD$16 million dollars” worth of gold bars simply walked out of the bank in broad daylight. The official “anti-corruption” agency described the heist as a “huge scandal that took place in the Country’s National Bank and took many Ethiopians by surprise [in which] corruptors dared to steal lots of pure gold bars that belonged to the Ethiopian people replacing them with gilded irons… Some employees of the Bank, business people, managers and other government employees were allegedly involved in this disastrous and disgracing scandal.” In another case involving a telecommunications deal with the Chinese, a high level regime official was secretly tape recorded trying to extort kickbacks for himself and other regime officials. The same “anti-corruption” agency reported that “there was another big corruption case at the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation that took many Ethiopians by surprise” which involved the “competitive tendering for the supply of telecommunication equipment.” After an investigation, FEAC “found out that nearly 200 million USD has been lost to corruption through the entire fraudulent and corrupt process.” No high level official in good standing with the regime has ever been investigated or prosecuted for corruption.

The poor and powerless bear the brunt of corruption in Africa. The devastating impact of corruption on the continent’s poor becomes self-evident as political leaders and public officials siphon off resources from critical school, hospital, road and other public works and community projects to line their pockets. As for President Obama, it seems that he has finally found the silver bullet to deal with Africa’s corrupt thugs. In a pun, no more cash and KARI for Africa’s kleptocrats.

To be continued….



Steel Vises, Clenched Fists and Closing Walls, (Part III)

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Note: This is the third installment in a series of commentaries I intend to offer on U.S. foreign policy (or lack thereof as some would argue) in Ethiopia. In this piece, I argue that while some credit is due to the Obama Administration for rhetorically promoting human rights throughout the world giving hope to millions suffering under tyranny and dictatorships, lack of follow up action could transform that hope into despair and anti-Americanism. I further suggest that the U.S. needs to take actions to improve human rights in Ethiopia or risk moral condemnation for prolonging and sustaining the rule of a criminal dictatorship.

The Human Rights Ledger of the Obama Administration

President Obama has been sharply criticized for his “inability” to deliver on his human rights “promises.” Some say his support for the cause of human rights and those struggling against oppression has been rhetorical, and lukewarm at that. He has been unable to translate lofty words into concrete actions to improve human rights. They say his basic approach is flawed because he is trying to reform and rehabilitate nasty dictators into wholesome democrats. A few have suggested that in the post-9/11 world, President Obama has made it his mission “to atone for America’s sins” instead of re-asserting a strong leadership role for the U.S., particularly in the area of human rights. He has been charged with “hypocrisy” for not speaking out against China, Hosni Mubark’s three-decade rule of Egypt under a state of emergency, the fizzling of human rights activism in Iran following the elections last year and the military coup in Honduras. His critics say that he has gone out of his way to accommodate the bloodthirsty Burmese military dictators despite the fact that the democratically elected leader of that country, Aung San Su Kii, has remained in detention for two decades. The vast majority of Ethiopians are disappointed in President Obama’s silence over the unjust imprisonment of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, and arguably the most important political prisoner on the African continent today.

Although President Obama and his administration could have done a lot more in the field of global human rights, I am not inclined to join the ranks of his critics and blame him for everything that has gone wrong in human rights worldwide during his eighteen months as president for two reasons. First, his administration has been weighted down by a domestic agenda of epic proportions and distracted by a variety of policy crises of unprecedented severity. Moreover, he had to manage two major ground wars and the global war on terror. Second, I do not expect decades of official neglect of human rights to be addressed in a span of eighteen months. Rather, I am inclined to telescope his overall involvement in the human rights field and make some inferences on his potential to make a great “human rights president” in his first term. I find some encouraging evidence that he could play an extraordinary role in global human rights.

Few would argue the fact that over the past eighteen months, President Obama has restored considerable credibility to U.S. global human rights leadership following gross abuses of human rights in Iraq. He banned the use of torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”) immediately after taking office. His speeches and public statements in Ghana, Egypt and Turkey and other places promoting human rights and accountability have given hope to millions. His Administration has fully supported the work and activities of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and even Kenya where the prosecutor acting on his own initiative for the first time is investigating that country’s 2007 post-election violence. (A similar ICC investigation into the massacres of hundreds of people in Ethiopia after the 2005 elections is overdue and fully warranted.) In a symbolic but unprecedented act, President Obama in a special White House ceremony honored women human rights activists from Zimbabwe by awarding them the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their struggle against the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. He has thrust human rights as a central part of the debate on U.S. policy around the world. These facts in my view are significant in light of his predecessor’s ritualistic obsession with elections regardless of whether they were rigged or stolen. As Secretary Clinton’s recent human rights speeches demonstrate, the Obama administration is emphatic on the issues of free expression, free press, clean elections and civil society. Overall, the evidence from diverse opinion surveys worldwide suggest that that in numerous countries opinions about the United States are about as positive today as they were before 9/11, principally because of the emphasis on human rights.

I am also mindful of Senator Obama’s successful sponsorship of the “Democratic Republic of Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act” in 2006. That Act aims to help promote and reinvigorate the political process in the Congo and meet the basic needs of Congolese citizens and targets the elimination of sexual violence against women and children. I recall the fact that Senator Obama would have fully supported H.R. 2003 (Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act) had it been brought for a vote on the Senate floor following its passage in the House of Representatives in 2007. On a personal level, I have confidence in Mr. Obama that he will stand up for human rights not because he is president but because he is first and foremost a constitutional lawyer. Challenging those who abuse power, flout the rule of law, sneer at justice and thumb their noses at due process is encoded in the DNA of every genuine American constitutional lawyer. None of the foregoing should be viewed as an “apology” for any failures on the part of President Obama or his administration. I will not hesitate to challenge the Administration’s human rights policy in Ethiopia (or elsewhere) as I have done in these series of commentaries.

The Insanity of Doing Nothing

It was Albert Eisnsten who said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It could equally be said of U.S. human rights policy in Ethiopia over the past decade that doing NOTHING over and over again and expecting results is insanity, sheer madness. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. for all of the billions it has given to the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi over the past two decades has been unable to curb his gross human rights violations. Indeed, the U.S. has shied away from strong and sustained criticism of Zenawi’s dismal human rights record. The Obama Administration must realize, if it has not already, that the current status quo – rigged and stolen elections, warehousing of large numbers of political prisoners, intimidation of opposition parties and leaders, decimation of the independent press, the climate of fear and loathing for the citizenry, denial of expressive freedoms, enactment of repressive anti-civil society laws, jamming of Voice of America broadcasts, provocative accusations of the U.S. Government as the soul mates of the genocidal thugs of Rwanda’s interhamwe — cannot and must not go on so long as American tax dollars are being used to bankroll Zenawi’s dictatorship. It should also be crystal clear to the Obama Administration that quiet diplomacy, soft-pedaling on human rights and attaching human rights as an afterthought to negotiations on counterterrorism, security, etc., will not work. The status quo will be damaging both to U.S. strategic interests in Ethiopia and the Horn and undermine the democratic development of Ethiopia.

The dilemma that President Obama is facing today over human rights in Africa is the same one that his predecessors have faced over the decades. The U.S. has never really developed an African policy that tethered human rights, security, trade and governance issues. Historically, U.S. policy in Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular has been haphazard and episodic dominated by a concern with the role of colonial powers, containment of communism, and now defeating global terrorism. “Realpolitik” has always trumped Wilsonianism. It was President Woodrow Wilson who during and after WWI undertook the mission “to make the world safe for democracy”. He believed international peace and America’s pre-eminent role in the world could be secured by promoting democracy and human rights and spreading the virtues of individual freedom, limited government, and popular sovereignty.

The Cold War threw cold water on Wilsonianism after WW II as the struggle to contain totalitarian communism became the core ideology in U.S. foreign policy. It was the Carter Administration that gave human rights a real boost by emphasizing democracy and human rights as practical objectives of U.S. foreign policy. Not unlike President Obama, President Carter raised the hopes of millions around the world. President Carter followed up with action imposing export and import restrictions on South Africa , Ethiopia, and Uganda and by linking economic and military aid to human rights violations. But “realpolitik” caught up with him quickly and the specter of communist insurrections forced him to negotiate for military bases in Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan despite the poor human rights records of the ruling regimes. The Reagan Administration showed interest in human rights at the cusp of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it was the administration of the senior George H. Bush that elevated the human rights rhetoric to new heights by unapologetically declaring that the world was not divided along an east-west axis but “between those committed to democracy and liberty and those against.” President Bill Clinton dubbed Africa’s dictators “new breed” of African leaders and built his “strategic initiative in Africa” so that Africans could serve as U.S. military proxies while using development aid and the international lending institutions to promote democratization.

President Obama is facing the same dilemma his predecessors have faced. His challenge now is to develop an effective strategy to transition his moral advocacy of human rights to practical application of human rights principles in U.S. foreign policy. If he fails to make the transition, he will be criticized for dashing the hopes of millions around the world and judged harshly by history for perpetuating American “hypocrisy” and spreading cynicism and despair.

Walking the Human Rights Talk: Accountability

It is high time for the U.S. to begin walking its human rights talk in Ethiopia. No doubt, striking the right balance between human rights concerns and “pragmatic” strategic interests will be no easy task. For the past decade, the U.S. has thrown human rights in Ethiopia under the bus in its pursuit of the global war on terror. Despite gruesome revelations of gross human rights abuses in Ethiopia by the official U.S. global human rights watchdog, the U.S. has consistently dismissed, ignored, disingenuously deferred, or promised action which never came to pass. It is time for the U.S. to fish or cut bait in Ethiopia.

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in her recent speech in Poland said there are four elements to the Obama Administration’s approach to “putting our principles into action” in American global human rights policy. The first pillar is accountability, which means “governments [must] take responsibility by putting human rights into law and embedding them in government institutions; by building strong, independent courts, competent and disciplined police and law enforcement.” Over the past decade, the U.S. has shown an almost pathological and reflexive aversion to the very idea of holding dictator Zenawi accountable. When Zenawi came out and declared that he had won the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent, the White House put out a statement bleating, “We are concerned that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments [and ] U.S. Embassy officials were denied accreditation and the opportunity to travel outside of the capital on Election Day to observe the voting.” Over the past five years, the U.S. has soft-pedaled gross violations of human rights. When Zenawi slaughtered hundreds of protesters following the 2005 elections, the U.S. made the mind-numbing statement: “The deaths as a result of the actions surrounding these protests are senseless. The United States calls upon both side to engage in a peaceful dialogue.” When Zenawi jailed tens of thousands of people that same year, the U.S. said, “We urge the government to respect the rule of law, international principles of human rights, and due process with regard to those arrested or detained.” This is not “accountability.” It is pusillanimity.

Accountability means holding someone responsible for their acts or omissions against a clear standard. Someone must be held accountable for the deaths and severe injuries of hundreds of peaceful protesters in 2005, the massacre of hundreds of Anuak people in Gambella in 2004 and the untold deaths and destruction  in the Ogaden. The Obama administration must take the same moral leadership in Ethiopia as it has taken in Kenya by supporting the International Criminal Court investigations in Kenya for the deaths that occurred in the post-2007 election period and the genocide in Darfur. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If ICC action is good enough for Kenya and the Sudan, I say it is good enough for Ethiopia.

By Secretary Clinton’s own words, accountability applies not only to the tin pot dictators of the world but also the U.S. That is why Ethiopians in the U.S. must hold the Obama Administration itself accountable under Section 116.75 (a) of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. That provision plainly states:

No assistance may be provided under this part to the government of any country which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or de-grading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person, unless such assistance will directly benefit the needy people in such country.

Similarly, Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1976 mandates:

[E]xcept under extraordinary circumstances no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons or other flagrant denials of the right to life, liberty, and the security of the person.

Is there a country that cries out more for the rigorous application of these provisions than Ethiopia?

Walk the Human Rights Talk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

President Obama has raised the hopes and democratic aspirations of millions around the world. He will have to give human rights the importance it deserves in U.S. foreign policy. Whether in Ethiopia or elsewhere, the issue of human rights could not be left to some embassy functionary who juggles other duties. Human rights should be given the same attention and importance given to counterterrorism, security, development and trade with African dictatorships. It must not be a side issue or an afterthought to other policies. President Obama in his speeches has awakened the world’s oppressed masses; and they fully expect that he will stand up with them and not those who oppress them. In Africa, he has a clear choice: Africa’s tin pot dictators bound for the dustbin of history or Africa’s youth. In his own words, “it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future. Above all, it will be the young people – brimming with talent and energy and hope.” I am hopeful that the Obama administration will use creative approaches to put American “human rights principles into action” in the foreseeable future.