For the past several months, I have been commenting on the findings of the World Bank’s “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”, a 448-page report covering eight sectors (health, education, rural water supply, justice, construction, land, telecommunications and mining). In this my sixth commentary, I focus on “corruption in the justice sector”. The other five commentaries are available at my blog site.
Talking about corruption in the Ethiopian “justice sector” is like talking about truth in Orwell’s 1984 Ministry of Truth (“Minitrue”). The purpose of Minitrue is to create and maintain the illusion that the Party is absolute, all knowing, all-powerful and infallible. The purpose of the Ministry of Justice in Ethiopia is to create the illusion that the ruling regime under the command and control of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) masquerading as the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (EPDRF) is absolute, all knowing, all-powerful and infallible.
I have long caricatured the “justice sector” of the TPLF/EPDRF as a kangaroo justice system founded on a sham, corrupt and whimsical legal process. What passes off as a “justice system” in Ethiopia is little more than a marketplace where “justice” is bought and sold in a monopoly controlled by one man supported by a few nameless, faceless and clueless men who skulk in the shadows of power. It is a justice system in which universal principles of law and justice are disregarded, subverted, perverted and mocked. It is a system where the poor, the marginalized, the audacious journalists, dissidents, opposition and civic society leaders are legally lynched despite the criticism and bootless cries of the international community. It is a system in which regime leaders, their families, friends and cronies are above the law and spell justice “JUST US”.
My first critique of the TPLF/EPDRF “justice system” appeared in 2006 when I wrote a 32-page analysis titled, “Keystone Cops, Prosecutors and Judges in a Police State.” It was written in the first year of what has become my long day’s journey into the dark night of advocacy against human rights violations in Ethiopia and Africa. The piece was intended to be a critical analysis of the trial of the so-called Kality defendants consisting of some 130 or so major opposition leaders, human rights advocates, civic society activists, journalists and others in the aftermath of the 2005 election. I tried to demonstrate that the show trial of those defendants was little more than a third-rate theatrical production staged to dupe the international community. I also tried to show how a dysfunctional and bankrupt judicial system was used to destroy political opposition and dissent. I described the “judicial proceedings” of the Kality defendants as “an elaborate hoax, a make-believe tribunal complete with hand-picked judges, trumped up charges, witless prosecutors, no procedures and predetermined outcomes set up to produce only one thing: a monumental miscarriage of justice.”
A glossy “diagnosis” of corruption in the Ethiopian justice sector
The WB’s “diagnosis” of corruption in “Ethiopia’s justice sector” is based on “interviews of 60 individuals” including “federal judges and prosecutors”, police, private attorneys, etc. in the capital and at another location. No ordinary citizens were included in the interview panel or the smaller focus groups. The study is intended to “explore the incidence of corruption in Ethiopia’s justice sector (including not only the courts but also several other organizations).” The “justice sector” includes, among others, “courts, police, prosecutors, administrative agencies with quasi-judicial powers, and public and private attorneys, prisons, and those in the executive and legislative branches responsible for enacting the laws and regulations governing their operations”.
The report begins with unusual disclaimers and apologia. The author proclaims that “this report begins from an agnostic standpoint—attempting only to document reality in Ethiopia’s justice sector and to compare it… with the situation elsewhere in African and other countries…” It is not clear what she means by “an agnostic standpoint”, but her analysis is frontloaded with servilely apologetic language manifestly intended not to offend or appear to point an accusatory finger at the ruling regime in Ethiopia. The report appears to have been written with some trepidation; perhaps the author was afraid of a backlash (tongue-lash) from the regime. The author timorously tiptoes around well-established and notorious facts about corruption in the regime’s justice sector. In light of the many disclaimers, reservations and contingencies in the report, it is obvious that the author does not want to call a spade a spade, so she calls the spade a bucket. But corruption by any disclaimer is still corruption; and Ethiopia’s justice sectors reeks of corruption.
The author claims an examination of “corruption in the justice sector is important because it undermines the peaceful resolution of conflicts, the control of corruption in other sectors, the strengthening of the normative framework underlying private and public actions (the rule of law), and the creation of a predictable environment for public and private transactions.” According to the study, corruption in the Ethiopian justice sector “takes one of two forms: (a) political interference with the independent actions of courts or other sector agencies, or (b) payment or solicitation of bribes or other considerations to alter a decision or action.” The study claims the “most common form of corruption involves bribes solicited by or offered to police to ignore a criminal offense, not make an arrest, or not bring witnesses or suspects to court (which can cause a provisional adjournment of the case). Traffic police are the worst offenders.” Another “common form of corruption” involves “payment of court staff to misplace case files or evidence” (a practice that has nearly disappeared because of new judicial policies on archive management introduced under a Canadian International Development Agency program”.
The author provides a catalogue of corrupt practices which she claims are disputed by various respondents in her study but include “(a) sales of judgments or other judicial actions in civil disputes; (b) lawyers’ solicitation of “bribes” that never reached the bench; (c) prosecutors’ misuse of their own powers, in response to bribes or political directives, to advance or paralyze a case; and (d) the corrupt actions of various officials entrusted with enforcement of judgments, especially in civil cases.” She attributes the divergence in viewpoints to a “likely gap between perceptions and reality [which] are partly a function of the persistent lack of transparency in personnel policies.”
What is remarkable about the WB “justice sector” study is the fact that the author, by focusing on the “most common form of corruption” (i.e. petty police, particularly traffic police, corruption), fails to critically probe grand corruption involving party officials and regime leaders and their cronies who routinely subvert the justice system through political interference and pressure to protect their political and economic interests. She circumvents serious inquiry into grand corruption in the “justice sector” by providing catalogues of “potential forms of criminal and civil corruption” and “corruption risks”. She appears averse to investigating high-level corruption that occurs in the process of judicial appointment of handpicked party loyalists and hacks, laws written to aid certain elites in society, or in the debasement and corruption of the integrity and independence of the judiciary. She ignores the type of justice corruption that occurs in “state capture” where economic elites develop cozy relationships with political and judicial officials through whom they obtain favorable judicial decisions to advance their own advantage. For instance, on the issue of political interference in the judicial process, the author demonstrates her “agnosticism” by reporting that “the one who came closest eventually admitted that ‘there was some [political interference], but it was very rare.’” Other responses ranged from ‘a moderate amount’ (limited to the bad apples) to the extreme of holding that ‘every civil judgment is sold.’”
Curiously, the author points an accusatory finger at petty corruption as the “most common form of corruption” distracting attention from the systemic and structural corruption in the justice sector. The importance of petty corruption must not be understated because of the serious impact it has on the lives and livelihoods of ordinary citizens interacting with police, prosecutorial and other petty judicial officials. There is ample anecdotal evidence of petty corruption in which ordinary Ethiopian citizens and businesspersons are “shaken down” by traffic cops or minor functionaries in the judicial or state bureaucracy seeking small bribes. However, though petty corruption may be easier to detect, the real focus should be on grand corruption which is systemic, structural and difficult to detect and nearly impossible to punish. Structural and systemic corruption in the legal institutions, rules, and norms and those who are practitioners in the system create, maintain and sustain a culture of corruption in the justice sector, which the author appears to overlook.
Justice corruption is primarily a systemic failure of judicial institutions, lack of political will and capacity to manage judicial resources, maintain integrity of institutions. The author makes abstract references to the usual catalogue of corruption variables but does not seek to gather data to illuminate the scope, breadth and gravity of the problem of political interference and lack of accountability in the justice system. Grand corruption in the justice sector stems from the fact that political officials have wide authority over judicial officials (from appointment to management of judicial functions); and political officials have little accountability and incentive to maintain the integrity of the justice sector. There are few functional formal systems of control in the relationship between the judicial and political processes in Ethiopia. If there ever were control systems, they have been broken for a long time making it nearly impossible to administer fairly the laws while maintaining accountability in the form of a robust reporting system and transparency in the form of robust management practices. Such institutional decay has promoted the growth of a culture of corruption in the justice sector and continues to undermine not only the broad adjudicatory role of justice sector institutions but also public confidence in the integrity of the justice system itself.
Justice sector in a police state?
Justice in a dictatorship is to justice as military music is to music. No reasonable person would consider martial law (military rule) to produce justice. By definition dictatorship — a form of government in which absolute power is concentrated in the hands of a dictator or a small clique — is the quintessential definition of injustice. Any form of government that operates in flagrant disregard of the rule of law is inherently corrupt.
I have on previous occasions tried to expose such corruption in Ethiopia’s “justice sector” with anecdotal evidence of arbitrary administration of justice or denial of fair trial to those accused of “terrorism”, “treason” and even “corruption”, opposition leaders, human rights advocates, journalists, etc. In the kinder and gentler police state that Ethiopia has become, any petty “law enforcement” official of the regime has the power to arrest and jail an innocent citizen. As I argued in my February 2012 commentary, “The Prototype African Police State”, a local police chief in Addis Ababa felt so arrogantly secure in his arbitrary powers that he threatened to arrest a Voice of America reporter stationed in Washington, D.C. simply because that reporter asked him for his full name during a telephone interview. “I don’t care if you live in Washington or in Heaven. I don’t give a damn! But I will arrest you and take you. You should know that!!”, barked the impudent police chief Zemedkun. If a flaky policeman can exercise such absolute power, is it unreasonable to imagine those at the apex of power have the power to do anything they want with impunity. The regime in Ethiopia is the petri dish of corruption and living proof that power corrupts and an absolute power corrupts absolutely.
In my view, denial of due process (fair trial) is the highest form of corruption imaginable in the “justice sector” because it results in the arbitrary deprivation of a person’s life, liberty and property. Could anyone (other than those politically connected) really expect to get a fair trial in the regime’s kangaroo courts or fair treatment in the pre-trial process?
The systemic corruption in the “justice sector” is that the law of the land is ignored, disregarded and perverted at the whim and fancy of those in power. For instance, the presumption of innocence (Eth. Const. Art. 20(3)) is openly flouted. The late leader of the regime used to routinely and publicly talk about the guilt of opposition leaders, journalists and others standing trial without so much of an awareness of the suspects’ right to a presumption of innocence or appreciation of the risk of prejudicial pretrial publicity emanating from such inflammatory statements which are prohibited under the Constitution and other international human rights regimes (e.g. Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 7(b) of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR)). In 2011, the late leader of the regime proclaimed the guilt of freelance Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye on charges of “terrorism” while they were being tried and he was visiting Norway. He emphatically declared the duo “are, at the very least, messenger boys of a terrorist organization. They are not journalists.” Persson and Schibbye were “convicted” and sentenced to long prison terms.
Show trials by publicity and demonization are another hallmark of the regime’s justice system. Following the 2005 election, the late leader of the regime publicly declared that “The CUD (Kinijit) opposition leaders are engaged in insurrection — that is an act of treason under Ethiopian law. They will be charged and they will appear in court.” They were charged, appeared in “court” and were convicted. In December 2008, the late leader railroaded Birtukan Midekssa, the first female political party leader in Ethiopian history, without so much as a hearing let alone a trial. He sent her straight from the street into solitary confinement and later declared: “There will never be an agreement with anybody to release Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” In making this statement, the late leader proclaimed to the world that he is the law and the ultimate source of justice in Ethiopia. His words trump the country’s Constitution!
In 2009, one of the top leaders of the regime labeled 40 defendants awaiting trial as “desperadoes” who planned to “assassinate high ranking government officials and destroying telecommunication services and electricity utilities and create conducive conditions for large scale chaos and havoc.” They were all “convicted” and given long prison sentences.
Violations of the constitutional rights of those accused of crimes by the regime are rampant. Article 20 (2) provides, “Any person in custody or a convicted prisoner shall have the right to communicate with and be visited by spouse(s), close relatives and friends, medical attendants, religious and legal counselors.” Internationally celebrated Ethiopian journalists including Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye and many others were denied access to legal counsel for months. Ethiopian Muslim activists who demanded an end to religious interference were jailed on “terrorism” charges were also denied access to counsel. They were mistreated and abused in pretrial detention. Scores of journalists, opposition members and activists arrested and prosecuted (persecuted) under the so-called anti-terrorism proclamation were also denied counsel and speedy trials and have languished in prison for long periods. Suspects are interrogated without the presence of counsel and coerced confessions extracted. Yet, Article 19 (5) provides, “Everyone shall have the right not to be forced to make any confessions or admissions of any evidence that may be brought against him during the trial.”
Article 19 (1) provides, “Anyone arrested on criminal charges shall have the right to be informed promptly and in detail… the nature and cause of the charge against him… Article 20 (2) provides, “Everyone charged with an offence shall be adequately informed in writing of the charges brought against him. Recently, the regime arrested members of its officialdom and their cronies on suspicion of corruption and kept the suspects in detention for months without informing them “promptly and in detail the charges against them”. Although the regime’s “top anti-corruption official” claimed that the corruption “suspects have been under surveillance for two years”, on their first court appearance, the prosecutors requested a 14-day continuance to gather more evidence! There is no judicial system in the world where suspects are arrested of committing crimes after being investigated for 2 years and then the prosecution asks for endless continuances to gather additional evidence.
Injustice impersonating justice
The 2012 U.S. State Department Human Rights report concluded, “The law provides for an independent judiciary. Although the civil courts operated with a large degree of independence, the criminal courts remained weak, overburdened, and subject to political influence.” The WB could have done a much better job of “diagnosing corruption” in Ethiopia’s “justice sector”. Candidly speaking, any deficiency in the report should not reflect exclusively on the World Bank or its consultants but on Ethiopians, particularly the Ethiopian intelligentsia, who do not seem find it worth their time or effort to read, challenge and supplement such reports. It seems few, very few, Ethiopian scholars and analysts take the time and effort to locate, study and critically analyze such important studies done by international institutions and other private research institutions.
I doubt the WB justice sector study will be of much value to policy makers, scholars or the casual reader. Having said that, the burden is on Ethiopian scholars in Ethiopia and abroad to work collaboratively and carefully document corruption in Ethiopia’s justice and other sectors. No study of Ethiopia’s justice sector is worthy of the title if it does not rigorously evaluate the factors that are at the core of corruption in the “justice sector” – absence of the rule of law, lack of independence of the judiciary, absence of due process, lack of impartiality and neutrality in the judicial process, the culture of corruption and impunity and the lack of accountability, transparency and confidence in the legal system. Such a study is the principal responsibility of Ethiopians, not the World Bank or its consultants. On the other hand, when the sword of justice is beaten into a sledgehammer of injustice, it is the supreme duty of ordinary citizens to expose it!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:
Ethiopia: Police “Discover” Bombs at Busy Market Place
By Getahun Bekle | tesfanews.net
August 24, 2013
According to eye witnesses whom the Horn Times spoke to, this pictured police officer first picked the two harmless bombs but a colleague shouted at him to place them back under an Isuzu van reg. number, code 3-73189.
And there began the live show of shame after ETV cameras and TPLF journalists rushed to the scene along with anti-terror squad members and federal police bomb disposal unit members.
Amid laughter and mockery by hundreds of onlookers at one of Addis Ababa’s busiest terminals known as American Gibi, near Ras Seyoum hotel, on Wednesday morning 22 August 2013, two police bomb disposal unit members crawled to the “dangerous explosives” and removed them while a camera man film their every move from very close range. However, the drama did not end there.
As the ETV camera zoomed, four police officers dragged a well-dressed and bearded young man who looks like a traditional Ethiopian Muslim from a nearby grain store and pulled out two detonators out of his hip pocket before horridly driving off the way they came. It was mission accomplished-planting evidence to persecute the innocent; in this case the Ethiopian Muslims.
Some already labeled the drama a strategic deception by the ruling minority junta to secure conviction by planting evidence that will lead to wrongful incarceration, torture, or even extrajudicial execution.
“It is ridiculous. How could police remove bombs with hundreds of people standing less than two meters away and ETV cinematographers filming the whole episode from less than a meter away? In addition, what kind of stupid terrorist is placing hand grenades without detonators under a car only to be caught with them moments later? I think everything is stage managed.” A shop owner who watched the whole drama from his balcony told the Horn Times reporters.
A well-known legal expert who chooses to remain anonymous said planting evidence has become part of the junta’s plan to stifle the opposition after the 2005 mass uprising against the minority rule.
“Police and intelligence officers who are employed by the Tigre People Liberation Front/TPLF cannot comply with the requirements of oaths and perform their jobs in an honorable and honest manner due to their ties to the regime.
“Under pressure from their superiors; officers plant evidence instead of gathering and analyzing evidence. Since they are hired to serve the ruling party, they think every opposition politician deserves to be incarcerated whether or not the suspects committed the particular crime in question.
“In my more than fifteen years of practice, I have seen dozens of wrongful convictions of respected opposition figures and journalists due to police planted evidence. Few days ago the Ethiopian government seized bombs at the airport and today another two bombs tomorrow a weapons cache…all these will be used in the ongoing propaganda war against Ethiopian Muslims.”
He explained warning that opposition politicians, journalists, and religious leaders will never get fair trial in a police state like Ethiopia.
The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is an important occasion for all those fighting for freedom. Ethiopian-Americans have been among the beneficiaries of the struggles waged by Dr. King and the civil rights movement.
The ebony kinship that binds Ethiopian-Americans and African-Americans have deep roots. His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellassie I was among the first African leaders to lay a wreath on Dr. King’s grave.
“I found it quite necessary to lay a wreath on Dr. King’s grave so that we may remember his deeds and contributions to history, and his triumphs – and to honor his father and his wife.” the Emperor said.
The government expands the mobile-phone network but tightens its grip
It’s China calling
ETHIOPIA has Africa’s last big telecoms monopoly. The absence of competition has seen a country of more than 80m lag badly behind the rest of the continent in an industry that has generally burgeoned alongside economic growth. Mobile-phone penetration, which averages 70% of the population elsewhere in Africa, is closer to 25% in Ethiopia. A paltry 2.5% of Ethiopians have access to the internet, compared with 40% in neighbouring Kenya.
Ethiopia’s authoritarian leaders are as keen as any on the economic benefits of modern telecoms but fear the political ramifications; pesky dissidents become even more irritating when wired. That explains a $1.6 billion agreement with China’s two leading telecoms-equipment companies to upgrade its network. The deal with Huawei and ZTE will preserve Ethiopia’s state dominance and further put off the opening up of one of Africa’s largest economies.
What the government wants from China are cheap loans and more control over its citizens. The new deal will provide soft loans to buy a Chinese-built 4G broadband network for the capital, Addis Ababa, and an expanded 3G network for the rest of the country. A similar deal with the same companies in 2007 expanded Ethiopia’s mobile-phone subscriber base but did little to shorten its digital lag.
Hopes that other companies might get a look in were always optimistic. The prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, has dubbed the telecoms industry a “cash cow” needed to pay for a rail link to neighbouring Djibouti. Ethio Telecom delivers more than $300m a year to the state coffers. Customers grumble that its slogan should be “Disconnecting Ethiopia from the future”.
The country is one of the world’s last big untouched telecoms markets. The government could earn as much as $3 billion from auctioning licences. But the powerful security services have routinely objected. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based free-speech lobby, accuses the government of conducting a “systematic effort to control all forms of communications” after it passed laws imposing prison sentences of up to 15 years on anyone caught bypassing online censors. Yidnek Haile, a student in Addis Ababa, was arrested two years ago for showing customers at an internet café how to make online calls.
In his 1981 farewell speech, President Jimmy Carter said, “America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way round. Human rights invented America.”
In a New York Times op-ed piece in June 2012, Carter cautioned, “At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.”
Carter also raised a number of important questions: Has the U.S. abdicated its moral leadership in the arena of international human rights? Has the U.S. betrayed its core values by maintaining a detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and subjecting dozens of prisoners to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and leaving them without the “prospect of ever obtaining their freedom”? Does the arbitrary killing of a person suspected to be an enemy terrorist in a drone strike along with women and children who happen to be nearby comport with America’s professed commitment to the rule of law and human rights?
In 1948, the U.S. played a central leadership role in “inventing” the principal instrument which today serves as the bedrock foundation of modern human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948, set a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations” in terms of equality, dignity and rights. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, chaired the committee that drafted the UDHR. Eleanor remains an unsung heroine even though she was the mother of the modern global human rights movement. Without her, there would have been no UDHR; and without the UDHR, it is doubtful that the plethora of subsequent human rights conventions and regimes would have come into existence. Remarkably, she managed to mobilize, organize and proselytize human rights even though she had no legal training, diplomatic experience or bureaucratic expertise. She used her skills as political activist and advocate in the cause of freedom, justice and civil rights to work for global human rights.
Is America disinventing human rights?
It seems the U.S. is “disinventing” human rights through the pursuit of double (triple, quadruple) standard of human rights policy wrapped in a cover of diplocrisy. In Africa, the U.S. has one set of standards for Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan. Mugabe and Bashir are classified as the nasty hombres of human rights in Africa. The U.S. has targeted both regimes for crippling economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. The U.S. has frozen the assets of Mugabe’s family and henchmen because the “Mugabe regime rules through politically motivated violence and intimidation and has triggered the collapse of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.”
The U.S. calls “partners” equally brutal regimes in Africa which serve as its proxies. Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Yuweri Museveni of Uganda and the deceased leader of the regime in Ethiopia are lauded as the “new breed of African leaders” and crowned “partners”. Uhuru Kenyatta, recently elected president of Kenya and a suspect under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity is said to be different than Bashir who faces similar ICC charges. In 2009, Ambassador Susan E. Rice, then-U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, demanded Bashir’s arrest and prosecution: “The people of Sudan have suffered too much for too long, and an end to their anguish will not come easily. Those who committed atrocities in Sudan, including genocide, should be brought to justice.” No official U.S. statement on Uhuru’s ICC prosecution was issued.
The U.S. maintains excellent relations with Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea who has been in power since 1979 because of that country’s oil reserves; but all of the oil revenues are looted by Obiang and his cronies. In 2011, the U.S. brought legal action in federal court against Obiang’s son to seize corruptly obtained assets including a $40 million estate in Malibu, California overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a luxury plane and a dozen super-sports cars worth millions of dollars. The U.S. has not touched any of the other African Ali Babas and their forty dozen thieving cronies who have stolen billions and stashed their cash in U.S. and other banks.
Despite lofty rhetoric in support of the advancement of democracy and protection of human rights in Africa, the United States continues to subsidize and coddle African dictatorships that are as bad as or even worse than Mugabe’s. The U.S. currently provides substantial economic aid, loans, technical and security assistance to the repressive regimes in Ethiopia, Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda and elsewhere. None of these countries holds free elections, allow the operation of an independent press or free expression or abide by the rule of law. All of them are corrupt to the core, keep thousands of political prisoners, use torture and ruthlessly persecute their opposition. Yet they are deemed U.S. “partners”.
“Principled disengagement” as a way of reinventing an American human rights policy?
If the Obama Administration indeed has a global or African human rights policy, it must be a well-kept secret. In March 2013, Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor said American human rights policy is based on “principled engagement”: “We are going to go to the United Nations and join the Human Rights Council and we’re going to be part of it even though we recognize it doesn’t work… We’re going to engage with governments that are allies but we are also going to engage with governments with tough relationships and human rights are going to be part of those discussions.” Second, the U.S. will follow “a single standard for human rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it applies to all including ourselves…” Third, consistent with President “Obama’s personality”, the Administration believes “change occurs from within and so a lot of the emphasis… [will be] on how we can help local actors, change agents, civil society, labor activists, religious leaders trying to change their societies from within and amplify their own voices and give them the support they need…”
On August 14, according to Egyptian government sources, 525 protesters, mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were killed and 3,717 injured at the hands of Egyptian military and security forces. It was an unspeakably horrifying massacre of protesters exercising their right to peaceful expression of grievances.
On August 15, President Obama criticized the heavy-handed crackdown on peaceful protesters with the usual platitudes. “The United States strongly condemns the steps that have been taken by Egypt’s interim government and security forces. We deplore violence against civilians.” His message to the Egyptian people was somewhat disconcerting in light of the massacre. “America cannot determine the future of Egypt. We do not take sides with any particular party or political figure. I know it’s tempting inside Egypt to blame the United States.”
In July 2009, in Ghana, President Obama told Africa’s “strongmen”, “History offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not…. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality… Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans [citizens and their communities driving change], and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
President Obama has a clear choice in Egypt between “those who use coups to stay in power” and the people of Egypt peacefully protesting in the streets. Now he says, “We don’t take sides…” By “not taking sides”, it seems he has taken sides with Egypt’s strongmen who “use coups to stay in power”. So much for “principled engagement”!
Obama reassured the Egyptian military that the U.S. does not intend to end or suspend its decades-old partnership with them. He cautioned the military that “While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual while civilians are being killed in the streets.” He indicated his disapproval of the imposition of “martial law” but made no mention of the manifest military coup that had ousted Morsy. He obliquely referred to it as a “military intervention”. He made a gesture of “action” cancelling a symbolic military exercise with the Egyptian army. There will be no suspension of U.S. military aid to Egypt and no other sanctions will be imposed on the Egyptian military or government.
I am not clear what Obama’s human rights policy of “principled engagement” actually means. But I have a lot of questions about it: Does it mean moral complacency and tolerance of the crimes against humanity of African dictators for the sake of the war on terror and oil? Is it a euphemism for abdication of American ideals on the altar of political expediency? Does it mean overlooking and excusing the crimes of ruthless dictators and turning a blind eye to their bottomless corruption? Does “principled engagement” mean allowing dictators to suck at the teats of American taxpayers to satisfy their insatiable aid addiction while they brutalize their people?
The facts of Obama’s “principled engagement” tell a different story. In May 2010, after the ruling party in Ethiopia declared it had won 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament, the U.S. demonstrated its “principled engagement” by issuing a Statement expressing “concern that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments” and promised to “work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people.” There is no evidence that the U.S. did anything to “strengthen democratic institutions and open political dialogue to become a reality for the Ethiopian people.”
When two ICC indicted suspects in Kenya (Kenyatta and Ruto) won the presidency in Kenya a few months ago, the U.S. applied its “principled engagement” in the form of a robust defense of the suspects. Johnnie Carson, the former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said the ICC indictments of Bashir and Uhuru/Ruto are different. “I don’t want to make a comparison with Sudan in its totality because Sudan is a special case in many ways.” What makes Bashir and Sudan different, according to Carson, is the fact that Sudan is on the list of countries that support terrorism and Bashir and his co-defendants are under indictment for the genocide in Darfur. Since “none of that applies to Kenya,” according to Carson, it appears the U.S. will follow a different policy.
President Obama says the U.S. will maintain its traditional partnership with Egypt’s military, Egypt’s “strongmen”. At the onset of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, Obama and his foreign policy team froze in stunned silence, flat-footed and twiddling their thumbs and scratching their heads for days before staking out a position on that popular uprising. They could not bring themselves to use the “D” word (dictator as in Hosni Mubarak) to describe events in Egypt then. Today Obama cannot bring himself to say the “C” word (as in Egyptian military coup).
Obama is in an extraordinary historical position as a person of color to advance American ideals and values throughout the world in convincing and creative ways. But he cannot advance these ideals and values through a hollow notion of “principled engagement.”
Rather, he must adopt a policy of “principled disengagement” with African dictators. That does not mean isolationism or a hands off approach to human rights. By “principled disengagement” I mean a policy and policy outcome that is based on measurable human rights metrics. Under a policy of “principled disengagement”, the U.S. would establish clear, attainable and measurable human rights policy objectives in its relations with African dictatorships. The policy would establish minimum conditions of human rights compliance. For instance, the U.S. could set some basic criteria for the conduct of free and fair elections, press and individual freedoms, limits on arbitrary arrests and detentions, prevention of extrajudicial punishments, etc. Using its annual human rights assessments, the U.S. could make factual determinations on the extent to which it will engage or disengage with a particular regime. “Partnership” status and the benefits that come with it will be reserved to those regimes that have good and improving records on specific human rights measures. Regimes that steal elections, win elections by 99.6 percent, engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions and other human rights violations would be denied “partnership” status and denied aid, loans and technical assistance. Persistent violators of human rights would be given a compliance timetable to improve their records and provided appropriate assistance to achieve specific human rights goals. If regimes persist in a pattern and practice of human rights violations, the U.S. could raise the stakes and impose economic and diplomatic sanctions.
Obama’s “principled engagement” seems to be a justification for expediency at the cost of American ideals. Until he decides to stand for principle, instead of standing behind the rhetoric of “principled engagement”, he will continue to find himself on a tightrope of moral, legal and political ambiguity. The U.S. cannot “condemn” and “deplore” its way out of its human rights obligations or global leadership role. Yes, the U.S. must take sides! It must take a stand either with the victims of human rights abuses throughout the world or the human rights abusers of the world. If Obama wants to save the world from strongmen with boots and in designer suits with briefcases full of cash, he should pursue a policy of “principled disengagement”. But he should start by reflecting on the words he spoke during his first inauguration speech:
Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.”
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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Similar to China’s ‘Tank Man,’ Ethiopia’s ‘Salat Man’ could prove to be a memorable symbolic icon
By Mohammed Ademo | Aljazeera.com
August 14, 2013
The appeal of non-violence as a means of social transformation is almost universal. Few deny its awesome power when unleashed with discipline. However, in the face of an impeding danger, especially one known to be as brutal as they come, it takes a lot of courage to remain nonviolent. Even though it calls for more valor than one need in a pitched battle, history has recorded only a handful of such defiant acts of ultimate heroism in man’s long quest for freedom and justice.
But no incident exemplifies the true genius of such silent rebellion more than China’s Tank Man. The year was 1989, at the height of a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing that saw hundreds, if not thousands, dead and many more arrested. A sole rebel, whose identity remains unknown quarter of a century later, took matters onto his own hands by blocking the advance of rumbling Chinese tanks near Tiananmen Square – at least 18 of them - dispatched to squash the popular protests threatening one-party rule, once and for all.
The Unknown Soldier walked to the middle of the street, held what looked like a shopping bag, and swerved left and right to halt the advance of the juggernaut. The symbolism of his defiance was instantly broadcast around the world and photos of his heroic resistance were globally published. Even in the pre-Internet era, that single image of a skinny young man blocking the path of the most fearsome of war machines immortalised the eventual triumph of the fight against authoritarianism worldwide.
Ethiopia’s ‘China Tank Man’
On August 8, 2013 – far from China’s Tiananmen Square, in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, a lone worshiper prayed the Eid Salat and was encircled by an army of riot police. The image shows a man on his knees praying unintimidated as a phalange of soldiers, bearing shields and batons, looked on. The desolate background, apparently deserted by other worshipers fearful for their lives or carted away, against an array of uniform police magnifies the image of this unknown rebel. Asked to name the faithful in the picture, Dimtsachin Yisema, the Facebook group often seen as the de facto leading body of the horizontal Ethiopian Muslims movement, said in an email, “it was sent to us by an activist.”
Like the Chinese activists of the 80s, even if for different grievances, Muslims in Ethiopia have been protesting against government interference in religious matters for nearly two years.
Some 29 leaders of the nonviolent campaign that calls on the Ethiopian government to respect it’s own constitution remain incarcerated on tramped up terrorism charges, the same charges used to muzzle journalists like Eskinder Nega and dissenting politicians Bekele Garba .
A week before Eid-al-Fitr in Kofele, central Oromia, far removed from the prying eyes of foreign cameras, over a dozen Muslim protesters, including a mother and child, were massacred in broad daylight. The story received passing references in the mainstream media. A foreign correspondent who visited the town few days after the incident was returned to the capital under threat of imprisonment.
As was with the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 , sometimes it takes a symbolic gesture to inspire courage. The photo of the ” Salat Man” in Addis Ababa will likely go down the annals of history as one of the most iconic symbols in the history of not just the Muslim protests but also of the struggle of the country’s diverse population for an end to the mounting repression by a one-party rule, now in power for more than two decades.
Although similar in appearance, the two iconic images faced starkly different fates. One was captured by CNN and the Associated Press cameras – and instantly broadcast around the world. The other was captured by a citizen journalist, perhaps with a mobile phone camera, and casually uploaded on Facebook.
Under these dire circumstances, even with a below regional average Internet penetration rate, social media has enabled Ethiopian activists, at least in urban areas, to organise and get their message across more effectively than the state, albeit to an indifferent world .
Protests are rare in Ethiopia. The last sustained protests in the country’s long but troubled history took down Emperor Haile Selassie, the last monarch. The fatal blow to the tottering imperial regime was delivered by Muslim protesters, joined by their liberal Christian allies, who staged one of the largest demonstrations preceding the Ethiopian Revolution of 1974. The ongoing Muslim movement is the most sustained, unified and well organised the country has seen, perhaps in its entire history.
Muslims, estimated to be more than a third of Ethiopia’s 93 million people, began protesting against government meddling in religious affairs in late 2011. Demonstrations were set off when students at the nation’s only Islamic institute walked out of classes after their teachers were dismissed, and replaced by regime loyalists through a government edict in an effort to impose Lebanese Islamic sect called Al-Ahbash .
Absent the alternative, activists now use social media as a primary broadcasting medium
But the incident had an unforeseen consequence for the regime; it served as a catalyst for a wider Muslim movement that called for a redress of years of marginalisation and silent suffering. The protesters demanded a free and fair election of Islamic leaders to the highest Muslim council, known as Majlis.
First, the government agreed to negotiate with the protesters. The protesters elected a committee of 17 Muslim activists to communicate their grievances to the authorities. When the negotiations failed, the regime arrested all of them in a desperate attempt to nip the movement that it deemed extremist at the bud. This too backfired as the protester’s calls grew bolder and their nonviolent tactics more sophisticated. Ironically, the jailed leaders of the two-year-old protest movement were among the most educated and moderate Muslim thinkers the public has known.
As was the case in China throughout the 1980s, Ethiopia’s state-run media have launched continuous attacks on the movement and its leaders, including a now famous mockumentary called Jihadawi Harakat. The fictitious film juxtaposes unrelated events in an attempt to link the protesters to terrorist groups in Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia.
Absent the alternative, activists now use social media as a primary broadcasting medium. The greatest strengths of utilizing digital platforms are also its greatest weaknesses. Given the information overload on social media networks, some of the most important messages can easily be buried – including the photo of the Salat Man .
If the image of Tank Man was one of the top 10 photos that changed the world, then when the symbolism and the defiant spirit of the Salat Man finally reaches the public – those on the exteriors of Facebook walls – his image too will forever inspire a generation of Ethiopian human rights activists, Muslims or not.