By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Note: This is the first 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 explore the human rights rhetoric in U.S. foreign policy and argue that lofty talk without action has emboldened Ethiopia’s dictators to ply their usual trade with greater audacity and made the U.S. a silent partner and a deaf-mute witness to their crimes. I urge the U.S. to back up its big human rights talk with big human rights action in Ethiopia.
Has the Mighty Eagle Turned Clucking Chicken?
Teddy “The Rough Rider” Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States, had many faults, but one of them was not inability to distinguish between talk and action. The old warhorse understood that “Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action, and we have trusted only to rhetoric. If we are really to be a great nation, we must not merely talk; we must act big.” Roosevelt believed the U.S. should “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Exactly a century later, appeasement seems to be the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy, at least in dealing with the world’s thugs operating gangsterdoms disguised as governments. The new American slogan appears to be: “Talk big about human rights and watch from the sidelines with folded arms as thugs and gangsters clamp their peoples’ heads in steel vises, punch them in the gut with clenched fists and hang, draw and quarter them behind closed prison walls.” Has the mighty eagle turned clucking chicken?
Steel Vises, Clenched Fists and Closing Walls
In his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama extended an open hand to the world’s thugs clad in the robes of state: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” In July 2009, in Ghana, President Obama told Africa’s “strongmen” artfully that they have been driving on the wrong side of history for so long that they are headed straight for history’s dustbin:
Development depends upon good governance. That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential…. 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 and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end… 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.
In July 2010, almost exactly a year to the week of President Obama’s Ghana speech, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave a speech in Poland on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Community of Democracies (an intergovernmental organization of democracies and democratizing countries with a stated commitment to strengthening and deepening democratic norms and practices worldwide) and singled out Ethiopia along with Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others to warn the world that “we must be wary of the steel vise in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit.” She cautioned that the “walls are closing in” on civic organizations, human rights advocates and other nongovernmental organizations that press for social change and shine a light on governments’ shortcomings. She pointed out: “Last year, Ethiopia imposed a series of strict new rules on NGOs. Very few groups have been able to re-register under this new framework, particularly organizations working on sensitive issues like human rights.”
In December 2009, Secretary Clinton delivered a speech in which she set out the basic human rights principles undergirding U.S. foreign policy in the age of thugs and gangsters masquerading as political leaders:
Throughout history and in our own time, there have been those who violently deny that truth. Our mission is to embrace it, to work for lasting peace through a principled human rights agenda, and a practical strategy to implement it…. [There are] many who hold power and who construct their position against an “other” – another tribe or religion or race or gender or political party. Standing up against that false sense of identity and expanding the circle of rights and opportunities to all people – advancing their freedoms and possibilities – is why we do what we do…. We stand for democracy not because we want other countries to be like us, but because we want all people to enjoy the consistent protection of the rights that are naturally theirs… But it is crucial that we clarify what we mean when we talk about democracy, because democracy means not only elections to choose leaders, but also active citizens and a free press and an independent judiciary and transparent and responsive institutions that are accountable to all citizens and protect their rights equally and fairly… Human rights, democracy, and development are not three separate goals with three separate agendas…. We have to tackle all three simultaneously with a commitment that is smart, strategic, determined, and long-term. We should measure our success by asking this question: Are more people in more places better able to exercise their universal rights and live up to their potential because of our actions? (Emphasis added.)
Secretary Clinton outlined the four pillars of the Obama Administration’s approach to “putting our principles into action”. She declared that U.S. policy is founded on “a commitment to human rights [which] starts with universal standards and with holding everyone accountable to those standards, including ourselves.” Accountability means “that governments 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.” 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. And we will use all the tools at our disposal, and when we run up against a wall, we will not retreat with resignation or recriminations, or repeatedly run up against the same well, but respond with strategic resolve…” Third, Clinton pledged to “support change driven by citizens and their communities. The project of making human rights a human reality cannot be just one for governments. It requires cooperation among individuals and organizations within communities and across borders.” Finally, she announced the U.S. “will widen [its] focus. We will not forget that positive change must be reinforced and strengthened where hope is on the rise, and we will not ignore or overlook places of seemingly intractable tragedy and despair.”
“Are more Ethiopians Better Able to Exercise Their Universal Rights and Live Up to Their Potential Because of U.S. Actions?”
Secretary Clinton said the acid test for the success or failure of U.S. foreign policy is whether “more people in more places are better able to exercise their universal rights and live up to their potential because of our actions?” By this measure, U.S. policy in Ethiopia has been a total, unmitigated and dismal failure. The evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable. Meles Zenawi, the poster child of African dictatorships, has not only “closed the walls”, he has also sealed the roof and nailed shut the doors and windows on Ethiopian society. Opposition leaders are threatened, intimidated, jailed and killed. Civic society organizations are criminalized, decertified and cutoff from funding sources. Political prisoners fill the country’s jails. The country’s first and only female political party leader in history, Birtukan Midekssa, remains imprisoned for life on the ridiculous charge that she denied receiving a pardon in 2007 for her kangaroo court conviction on trumped up charges the year before. Ethiopia ranks at the top of the most corrupt countries in the world despite billions in U.S. and Western aid. In the 2010 Failed States Index, Ethiopia is ranked 17 out of 177 countries (Somalia is ranked #1 failed state). There is no freedom of speech or of the press. Journalists and human rights advocates are harassed and arrested. Independent newspapers are shuttered. Even the one-hour daily radio broadcasting service of the Voice of America (VOA) has been jammed by Zenawi’s explicit orders for the past several months in a flagrantly provocative act. Zenawi accused the VOA (the official international radio and television broadcasting service of the United States government broadcasting in 44 languages), and by implication the United States Government, as the voice of hate and genocide in Ethiopia. Zenawi said the VOA has “copied the worst practices of radio stations such as Radio Mille Collines of Rwanda.” According to Zenawi, the VOA has become the VOI (Voice of Interhamwe)
As to the third pillar of American foreign policy (“change driven by citizens, civic society organizations and their communities”), the evidence is flabbergasting. According to a recent report of the “Ministry of Justice” of Ethiopia, there were a “total of 3,522 NGOs (non-governmental organizations) registered before the country introduced the new law, [and] only 1,655 have so far been able to reregister while the rest (nearly 50%) vanished.” The “Ministry” further reported that “out of the total 1,655 NGOs, which so far are able to be reregistered, 218 have changed their names while 17 shifted from their previous objectives to other objectives.”
Did U.S. actions help promote free and fair elections? Zenawi’s allied-party won 99.6 percent of the parliamentary seats in May 2010. Zenawi chafed publicly at the loss of the 0.4 percent and pledged resolutely: “I would like to confirm to those who did not vote for us that we will work hard to look into your reasons for not voting for us with the view to learning from them and correcting any shortcomings on our part. We will work day and night to obtain your support in the next election.” No doubt, in 2015, the vote will be 100 percent for Zenawi and his party! The European Union Elections Observation Mission, The White House and the U.S. State Department were aghast at the results and bleated: “The elections fell short of international commitments.” They could not quite bring themselves to say the “R” word. Rigged!
Are more Ethiopians today better able to exercise their universal rights and live up to their potential because of U.S. actions? (Just a rhetorical question.)
Talk is Cheap When a Toothless (Paper) Tiger Talks?
Some people cynically and pejoratively characterize U.S. human rights declarations in its foreign policy as hypocritical “cheap talk.” They argue that the U.S. would rather cluck about democracy, freedom and human rights in the abstract than do something concrete to help protect it in societies suffering under dictatorships. I disagree. American talk is not cheap because America talks with its taxpayers’ hard earned dollars. Since 1991, American taxpayers have shelled out $3.2 billion in humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia. Zenawi’s regime has received $26 billion in development aid from the West during the same time, the lion’s share coming from the wallets and purses of hard working American taxpayers. Without American tax dollars bankrolling the dictatorship in Ethiopia, it could not last even a single day.
I will concede that American talk is cheap for the dictators in Ethiopia. For them, America is all bark, and no bite. The lofty words of President Obama and Secretary Clinton go in one ear and exit clean through the other. The U.S. can moan and groan, gripe and grouse about human rights violations in Ethiopia, but its bark is no more threatening than the growl of a toothless and clawless (paper) tiger. “They ain’t gonna do diddley-squat. Let the Americans talk until they turn blue in the face,” the dictators cackle. But America’s color is not just blue; it is also red and white. Ethiopia’s dictators see only the blue which signifies American vigilance, patience and perseverance against injustice. They don’t know what the red and white signify. It time to let them know the real meaning of the colors in the stars and stripes, President Obama! And if I may add, Sir, it is more effective to “speak softly and carry a big stick” when dealing with Africa’s tin pot dictators.
FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA
Alemayehu G. Mariam
Note: Except for elements inserted in the nature of narrative license, syntax and independently established facts, this “interview” is based on English or Amharic translations of public statements, hearing testimony, speeches and other declarations[ 1] of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and that country’s most famous political prisoner. Her re-imprisonment in December 2008 on allegations of denying a pardon was a tactical move by dictator Meles Zenawi to incapacitate and eliminate his only serious and formidable challenger in the May 2010 “elections”. In March 2010, the U.S. State Department declared Birtukan a political prisoner. In January 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council listed her as a victim of arbitrary detention. Amnesty International named Birtukan a prisoner of conscience in 2009.
This “interview” is done partly for the benefit of Western governments and their diplomatic representatives in Ethiopia in light of the May 2010 “elections”. It seems that Western governments in general have taken a solemn vow to say nothing, see nothing and hear nothing about Birtukan. As they hide behind a diplomatic shield of shame and give lip service to democratic ideals while coddling a dictator, I hope with this “interview” they will at least begin to appreciate this extraordinarily brilliant, thoughtful, enlightened, perceptive, humorous, cultured, humble and compassionate Ethiopian woman political leader.
I had the great honor and privilege to meet Birtukan in the Fall of 2007 when she led a delegation of Coalition for Unity and Democracy (Kinijit) party leaders visiting the United States. On numerous occasions, I have publicly expressed my highest respect, greatest admiration, deepest gratitude and boundless appreciation for Birtukan’s sacrifices in the cause of democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia.
Q. Let’s start by talking about your situation in Akaki federal prison over the past year and half. We are told that your “health is in perfect condition”, you have picked up a “few kilos” and could use some physical exercise. How is life in prison?
Birtukan: Correction! You mean life at the Akaki Hilton Spa and Resort? Well, the food here is excellent and so are the accommodations. I have my own special room. I like to call it my boudoir. They call it “Solitary Confinement”. It is true that I have “gained a few kilos”, but that is because I spend all of my time in my room. “C’est la vie” at the Akaki Hilton, as they say in French.
Q. The reason you were returned to prison to serve out a life term is that you allegedly denied receiving a pardon when you were released in July, 2007. Did you deny receiving a pardon?
Birtukan: I have never denied signing the pardon document as an individual prisoner. I, along with the other opposition political prisoners, asked for pardon through the elders according to the document that was written on June 18, 2007. This is a fact I can not change even if I wanted to. In my opinion the reason why all these illegal intimidations and warnings were aimed at me have nothing to do with playing with words, inaccurate statements I made or any violations of law. The message is clear and this message is not only for me but for all who are active in the peaceful struggle. A peaceful and law-abiding political struggle can be conducted only within the limits the ruling party has set and not according to what the country’s Constitution allows. And for me it is extremely difficult to accept this.
Q. As you know, elections are scheduled for May 23, 2010. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Birtukan: It is hard for me to say much locked up at the Akaki Hilton. I get no newspapers, magazines or books. I have no radio or television. But I can tell you how it was in 2005 and you can judge for yourself what the situation is like today.
In 2005, public interest and participation in the electoral process was massive. The European Union Observer team estimated voter registration at no less than 85% of all eligible voters, based on lists containing 25,605,851 names of registered persons. The total number of candidates for the House of Peoples’ Representatives was 1,847. A total of 3,762 candidates ran for Regional Councils. The total number of women candidates to the House of Peoples’ Representatives was 253, and 700 in the Regional Councils.
To its credit the government in 2005 allowed limited media access, established a Joint Political Party Forum at national and constituency levels, regular consultations with electoral authorities to resolve problems in campaign and election administration, special elections-related training programs for the police and the judiciary, pledges of non-violence between the ruling and opposition parties for election day and invitation of international election observers and so on.
As election day approached, the government started to use its power to influence the outcome of the election. There was widespread interference by local authorities in the conduct of public gatherings and opposition party rallies, threats and intimidations by some local public officials. In some instances, force was used to disrupt public gatherings and detain opposition supporters throughout the country. In the days preceding the elections, there was a spike in negative campaigns on radio and television using images and messages designed to intimidate by associating the genocide in Rwanda with opposition politics.
Even though the Election Board was required to announce the official results on June 8, that requirement was superseded when Prime Minister Meles Zenawi declared a state of emergency, outlawed any public gathering, assumed direct command of the security forces, and replaced the capital city police with federal police and special military units. The Elections Board simultaneously ordered the vote tallying process to stop, and on May 27, the Board released its determination that the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front had won 209 seats, and affiliated parties 12 more. The report indicated opposition parties had won 142 seats. Our party filed complaints in 139 constituencies, the UEDF lodged 89 complaints, while the EPRDF raised concerns over irregularities in more than 50 seats.
That’s how it was back in 2005.
Q. The ruling regime continues to make public accusations that the opposition in the current “election” is inciting violence as it did in 2005. Recent public statements from the highest levels of the ruling regime indicate that any attempts by opposition parties to boycott the election, complaints of harassment and intimidations and agitations of youth to engage in violence will be dealt with harshly after the elections. How do you assess the situation?
Birtukan: As the 2005 elections have shown, if there is any violence to occur in the current election it is not going to come from the opposition. The Inquiry Commission established by the government in 2005 to look into the killings and excessive use of force against demonstrators decided that there was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as alleged by the government. The shots fired by government forces were not intended to disperse the crowd of protesters but to kill them by targeting their heads and chests. The historical facts speak for themselves. If there is election related violence today, one need look no further than the usual suspects.
Q. The ruling regime likes to trumpet to the world that Ethiopia is governed democratically, human rights are fully protected and the rule of law observed. Do you agree with these claims?
Birtukan: Dictatorship and democracy are not the same thing. There is no democracy in Ethiopia today, despite empty claims of “recent bold democratic initiatives taken by our government, the immense progress in creating a competitive, pluralistic system of government and a more open civil society.” The fact of the matter is that there is neither pluralism nor commitment to democratic principles and practices in Ethiopia. The government’s claim of political pluralism has not gone beyond the stage of political sloganeering. If pluralism involves widespread participation and a greater feeling of commitment from citizens, it does not exist today in Ethiopia. If pluralism means increased and diverse participation in the political decision-making process and giving everyone a stake in the political process, it does not exist in Ethiopia. If pluralism means a process where every voice is heard, conflict is resolved by dialogue and compromise and an atmosphere of tolerance, understanding and respect is nurtured, that does not exist either. But democracy in Ethiopia today must not only reflect the values of pluralism, it must also be genuinely participatory, transparent, accountable, equitable and based on the rule of law. We are all aware that democracy in Ethiopia will not be accomplished overnight. But we must start the process now in earnest by installing its critical pillars of support.
Q. What are the pillars you believe are important in establishing democracy in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: The are many. Let me start by mentioning the need for an independent judiciary. I know a thing or two about that having served as a judge and also being a victim of a judicial system that has me imprisoned for life. In 2005, I and the various opposition leaders were prosecuted for various state crimes including genocide, treason, incitement to violence, leading armed rebellion and other charges. Our prosecution occurred in a court system that has little institutional independence, and one subject to political influence and manipulation from the ruling regime. It is a judiciary that is used as a tool of political harassment, intimidation and persecution. Judges are selected not for professionalism or legal knowledge but for their loyalty to the government.
It is universally accepted that an independent and professional judiciary is a key element in the institutionalization of the rule of law, the promotion and protection of human rights and even in implementing social and economic reform in society. The U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other documents recognize the central importance of an independent judiciary as the guarantors of due process and justice. Judicial independence is guaranteed by Article 78 of the Ethiopian Constitution but it does not exist in reality. Although judges are supposed to be free of party politics, many are under the direct control of the party in power, if not outright members. With the judiciary under effective political control, there is little confidence in its institutional powers or the legitimacy of its rulings. If we can not have serious judicial reforms, not only will we be unable to protect the rights of citizens, we will always live under the rule of the gun instead of the rule of law.
Q. What other pillars of democracy do you believe are missing in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: Press freedom is another essential requirement necessary for building democracy in Ethiopia. Without a free press, there can be no meaningful democracy. People in Ethiopia, particularly in the rural areas, do not have access to important political information because of exclusive government control of the media. Political parties need to have equal access to media controlled by the government so that they can effectively communicate with the people. Various international human organizations have ranked Ethiopia at the top of the list of countries where there is little freedom of press. The U.S. and other Western governments can help by promoting private electronic media and supporting the emergence of private newspapers, weeklies and magazines to help develop a well-informed public.
Q. What are your views on the electoral process, and what improvements to that process do you believe are needed?
Birtukan: First, all elections must be free and fair in order for citizens to meaningfully participate in shaping the political makeup and future policy direction of government. People must be free to register to vote or run for public office. Candidates and parties must be free to engage the voters without intimidation or harassment. There must be an independent free press to provide information to the voters. The freedom to assemble for political rallies and campaigns must be guaranteed. There must also be an impartial system of conducting elections and verifying election results. It was the lack of independence, impartiality and transparency of the Ethiopian National Electoral Board that was one of the factors that complicated the resolution of the dispute in the 2005 elections. We need an elections board that is representative of all the political parties and enjoys the public trust. People need to have confidence that their votes are counted properly and there is no elections fraud.
Q. How do you assess the human rights situation in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: Human rights are the basic rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. Many of these rights are secured under international law and the Ethiopian Constitution. The ruling regime has sought to put up a façade of commitment to human and democratic rights. But its practices contravene all of its obligations under the Ethiopian constitution and the human rights conventions that bind Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Constitution under Art. 14 enumerates all of the “human rights” enjoyed by Ethiopian citizens. Arts. 14-28 enumerate these rights and include basic protections against arbitrary government actions and guarantees of due process. Art. 13, sec. 2 states “The fundamental rights and freedoms enumerated in this Chapter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights covenants and conventions ratified by Ethiopia.”
The fact is that the ruling regime observes neither its own constitution nor the requirements of well-established international human rights conventions. The regime’s own Inquiry Commission in 2005 has documented widespread excessive use of force by government security forces. The human rights violations committed by the ruling regime are so numerous and egregious that it would be too difficult to list them all here. But I wish to cite a few examples documented in the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report for 2006.
That report stated that “Although the [Ethiopian] constitution and law prohibit the use of torture and mistreatment, there were numerous credible reports that security officials often beat or mistreated detainees.” Massive arrests and detentions are common, and the Report concluded, “Although the [Ethiopian] constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, the government frequently did not observe these provisions in practice…. Authorities regularly detained persons without warrants and denied access to counsel and family members, particularly in outlying regions… The independent commission of inquiry… found that security officials held over 30,000 civilians incommunicado for up to three months in detention centers located in remote areas… Other estimates placed the number of such detainees at over 50,000.”
Q. Do you think Western governments, particularly the U.S., can play a role in improving the overall situation in Ethiopia?
Birtukan: As the largest donor country, the U.S is in the best position to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Ethiopia. In general, Western governments must insist on the release of all political prisoners and the immediate restoration of democratic rights. They must insist on accountability and transparency since they provide substantial aid to keep the government afloat. They must promote human rights by supporting civic society organizations and implementing other mechanisms that can facilitate adequate monitoring and reporting of human rights violations. The West must insist on the functioning of a free press without censorship and restrictive press laws, and help strengthen private media in Ethiopia. The West can also play a central role in the electoral process by ensuring fraud-free elections, helping political parties build more effective organizations and campaigns, strengthening civil society groups to function as facilitators in the democratic process and professionalization of the National Election Board to help it become fair and balanced. On the other hand, we want to make sure that U.S. security assistance to Ethiopia be used for peacekeeping and counter-terrorism operations, and never against the civilian population.
Q. What are your views on the future of Ethiopia?
Birtukan: I believe Ethiopia is the country of the future. Ethiopia has many problems, including a legacy of repression, ethnic division, corruption, mismanagement, lack of accountability and transparency. It will not be easy for us to confront the past and move on with lessons learned. The most important task now is to build the future country of Ethiopia by fully embracing democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Only through dialogue, negotiation and compromise can justice, stability and peace be guaranteed in Ethiopia.
Thank you Birtukan for this “interview”. Stay strong!
 See e.g., http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/110/mid100207.htm
Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, newamericamedia.org and other sites.