(IWMF) — It was only a matter of time before Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu was sent to prison. Her country has become one of the most oppressive in the world for press freedom, with numbers of jailed journalists rising steadily each year.
Alemu was arrested on June 21, 2011, and accused of conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and participation in a terrorist organization under the controversial 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Based on no evidence other than her articles criticizing the Ethiopian government, Alemu was sentenced to 14 years in Ethiopia’s notoriously ill-maintained Kaliti prison.
Although the U.S. government has expressed concerns about “the extent to which Ethiopians can rely upon their constitutionally guaranteed rights to afford the protection that is a fundamental element of a democratic society”, Ethiopia remains a key U.S. ally in its battle against al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s Somalia affiliate, which some believe has resulted in an unduly lenient attitude towards Ethiopia’s human rights violations.
The arrest of Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, two Swedish journalists, made evident the damage to its reputation the Ethiopian government was willing to accept in its effort to silence independent reporters. They were picked up after crossing the Somali-Ethiopian border illegally while reporting on ONLF rebels and the humanitarian situation in the closed Ogaden region. The 14-month-long diplomatic tug of war under the watchful eye of the international media ended when Schibbye and Persson were pardoned and released in September 2012 after they admitted guilt and were sentenced to eleven years in prison.
Reeyot Alemu refused to admit guilt in exchange for clemency and has, instead, appealed the verdict. In August 2012, to the surprise of many experts in the diplomatic community, and in part due to the international attention Alemu has received, including winning the 2012 IWMF Courage in Journalism Award, two charges against her were dropped and her sentence was reduced to five years. Alemu hasn’t given up – her court dates have been postponed numerous times but there is still a chance that the appeals court will decide to drop the remaining terrorism charges against her on Tuesday, January 8th.
“Reeyot is young and well-educated. She could have easily left her country or chosen a different career – but she loves Ethiopia and her profession. She always held her head high and she gave me strength”, Martin Schibbye said in an interview with the IWMF.
The first time he met Reeyot Alemu was on a prison bus from Makelawi, the central police investigation headquarters in Addis Ababa, to the Magistrate’s Court where the prosecution repeatedly filed 28-day extensions to keep political prisoners in custody without charge. “What do you do?”, Schibbye remembered asking Alemu on their first encounter. “I am a journalist”, she replied. They quickly realized that everyone on that bus was a journalist or a politician from the opposition and that they were all charged with a crime they hadn’t committed: terrorism. “That was the moment when we realized that we had ended up in a major crackdown against free speech in Ethiopia”, Schibbye told the IWMF.
Despite being separated from each other for the majority of their time in prison, the journalists in Kaliti felt a strong bond and built an emotional support network to help each other through their long days of confinement and uncertainty. “Even locked up in a dark room without shoelaces, deprived of your freedom of expression as well as your physical freedom, you can still keep the most valuable thing that nobody can take from you: the right to determine who you are. Every morning we woke up and said to each other: We are journalists, not terrorists … this is just another day at the office”, Schibbye said.
After spending 438 days in the custody of Ethiopian authorities and closely monitoring the cases of his Ethiopian journalistic colleagues, Schibbye delivers a damning verdict on the state of democracy in Ethiopia. “There is no such thing as an independent justice system, it’s completely politicized. If the order comes from the federal level that Reeyot is to let go, she will be free. But if they feel that they gain more from keeping her in prison, for example to scare other independent journalists, they will keep her locked up. This decision lies entirely in the hands of the Ethiopian government.”
Schibbye suspects that intimidation of independent journalists played a substantial role in Ethiopia’s motivation to jail European journalists like himself and Johan Persson. “Reeyot and some of the other jailed journalists were brought to Johan’s and my sentencing hearing”, Schibbye recalled. “The Ethiopian authorities forced them to witness the rendering of our verdict as if to say: ‘Look what we can do to these European guys … imagine what we can do to you!'”
While organizations such as the IWMF may not have the political clout to provide direct protection or effect instant change in situations like Alemu’s, the value of international attention should not be underestimated. “When you’re locked up as a prisoner of conscience, the greatest fear is to be forgotten,” Schibbye explained. “The support from the outside is what keeps you going, it’s more important than food and medicine. And international recognition such as the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award does in fact provide a certain level of protection. Prison guards and administrators will think twice because they know the world is watching”, he said.
Even though their interactions were very limited due to a strict communication ban in Kaliti prison, Schibbye was deeply impressed with Alemu’s strong moral beliefs. She hasn’t grown tired of pointing out that she is a journalist, not a terrorist. “During the interrogation in Makelawi, Reeyot never broke down. She kept explaining to the police interrogators, some of them younger than her, why she was fighting for freedom of speech and democracy”, Schibbye remembers.
The last time Schibbye saw Alemu was in August 2012, not long before he and Persson were released from prison. They passed each other outside the prison administration offices, being escorted to and from their cells, Schibbye recalled. “She looked fragile but she is a survivor!”
The people of Ethiopia continued to wallow in misery in 2012 and the main cause is lack of freedom. The level of prosperity and quality of life in most countries are in direct parallel to the freedom their people enjoy. The most affluent people with the highest quality of life in the word are those who enjoy the greatest level of freedom. Over 95% of Ethiopians live in abject poverty not because Ethiopia lacks natural resources, or its citizens are lazy. The root cause of Ethiopia’s misery is lack of freedom. Ethiopia is being governed by one of the most brutal and stupid dictatorships in the world. We Ethiopians are unable, so far, to wage a successful struggle to remove the tyrannical regime that is tormenting and brutalizing us partly because of the billions of dollars that the regime is receiving from the United States and European Union. For our struggle to succeed, every bit of support we get from friends of freedom helps a great deal and we have to show our appreciation by giving due recognition. Julian Assange is one of the most important friends of freedom, and as he is currently being persecuted by the U.S. Government (read here), we need to stand with him and show our support and appreciation.
Because of Julian Assange’s effort, the world knows that heroic Ethiopians such as Andualem Aragie, Eskindir Nega, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Olbana Lelisa, Bekele Gerba and countless others are languishing in jail after being falsely accused of terrorism by a regime that is bankrolled by the U.S. Government and the European Union, and assisted by China.
U.S. diplomatic cables from Addis Ababa confirmed that the U.S. Government is fully aware that the TPLF junta’s terrorism charges against human rights advocates, journalists and political opponents have been fabricated, thanks to Julian Assange (read here). The U.S. cannot deny any more the atrocities that are being perpetrated against the people of Ethiopia by the regime it is financing.
Brave and creative individuals like Julian Assange are playing an important role in shaming the U.S. Government and forcing it to change its anti-human rights foreign policy using the power of information. The U.S. Government’s hypocrisy in regards to human rights is a well established fact before Julian Assange’s Wikileaks came into existence. But when it is confirmed by U.S. officials themselves through leaked documents, the U.S. foreign policy — which has produced more terrorists than the madrasas in Pakistan — will hopefully get heightened scrutiny by the American people.
Julian Assange is now a hunted man by none other than the Obama Administration. He is currently hiding inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London. The U.S. Government, that we all looked up to as a beacon of freedom, is trying to silence a website editor for exposing the crimes that are being perpetrated around the world in the name of the American people.
We understand that the U.S. Government has a legitimate need to keep its secrets, but that is not the job of journalists or website editors. The persecution of Julian Assange by U.K. and U.S. is a setback for press freedom in the world. It’s already giving some governments an excuse to pass laws that would make it a crime for the independent press to publish state secret.
In choosing Julian Assange as “Ethiopian Review’s Person of the Year for 2012,” we say thank you and appreciate his creativity and courage. We also want to add our voice to the calls being made by freedom loving people around the world for Obama to respect America’s most cherished liberty that is enshrined in the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.
2012 is gone. 2013 is on the way. Let us ring in redress to all humankind.
I wish a happy and prosperous new year to all of my readers throughout the world. To those who have unwearyingly followed my columns for nearly three hundred uninterrupted weeks, I wish to express my deep gratitude and appreciation. I am thankful for all of the support and encouragement I have received from my readers in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Diaspora and others throughout the world.
I ask my readers to ring in the new year with a firm resolution to seek redress for human rights violations in Ethiopia, other parts of Africa and throughout the world. As Dr. Martin Luther King taught, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…”
Let us bid farewell to the old year and greet the new one with the poetic words of Lord Alfred Tennyson:
Ring out the old, ring in the new,…
Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind,…
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws…
Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good…
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,…
Ringing Out 2012
I thought I would ring out 2012 by extracting snippets from selected weekly commentaries I wrote during the year.
In January 2012, I wondered aloud if there will be an “African Spring” or “Ethiopian Tsedey (Spring)” in 2012. I cryptically answered my own question taking cover in Albert Camus’ book “The Rebel”. “What is a rebel?”, asked Camus. “A man who says no… A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying ‘no’? He means, for example, that ‘this has been going on too long,’ ‘up to this point yes, beyond it no’, ‘you are going too far,’ or, again, ‘there is a limit beyond which you shall not go.’ But from the moment that the rebel finds his voice — even though he says nothing but ‘no’ — he begins to desire and to judge. The rebel confronts an order of things which oppresses him with the insistence on a kind of right not to be oppressed beyond the limit that he can tolerate.”
Africa’s Spring will arrive when enough Africans including Ethiopians collectively resolve to rise up from the winter of their discontent and make glorious spring and summer by declaring, “No! Enough is Enough!”
The Chinese Dragon is dancing the Watusi shuffle with African Hyenas. Things could not be better for the Dragon in Africa. In the middle of what once used to be the African Pride Land now stands a brand-spanking new hyenas’ den called the African Union Hall (AU). Every penny of the USD$200 million stately pleasure dome was paid for by China. It is said to be “China’s gift to Africa.” Sooner or later China has to come to terms with three simple questions: Can it afford to fasten its destiny to Africa’s dictators, genociders and despots? How long can China pretend to turn a blind eye to the misery of the African people suffering under ruthless dictatorships? Will there be a price to pay once the African dictators that China supported are forced out of power in a popular uprising? To update the old saying, “Beware of Chinese who bear gifts.”
In March 2012, I boldly predicted that Ethiopia will transition from dictatorship to democracy. But I also cautiously suggested that dissolution of the dictatorship in Ethiopia does not guarantee the birth of democracy. There is no phoenix of democracy that will rise gloriously from the trash heap of dictatorship. Birthing democracy will require a lot of collaborative hard work, massive amounts of creative problem solving and plenty of good luck and good will. A lot of heavy lifting needs to be done to propel Ethiopia from the abyss of dictatorship to the heights of democracy. It will be necessary to undertake a collective effort now to chart a clear course on how that long-suffering country will emerge from decades of dictatorship, without the benefit of any viable democratic political institutions, a functional political party system, a system of civil society institutions and an independent press to kindle a democratic renaissance.
Eskinder Nega is my special hero because he fought tyranny with nothing more than ideas and the truth. He slew falsehoods with the sword of truth. Armed only with a pen, Eskinder fought despair with hope; fear with courage; anger with reason; arrogance with humility; ignorance with knowledge; intolerance with forbearance; oppression with perseverance; doubt with trust and cruelty with compassion. I lack the words to express my deep pride and gratitude to Eskinder and his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil (winner of the 2007 International Women’s Media Foundation “Courage in Journalism Award”), for their boundless courage and extraordinary sacrifices in the cause of press freedom in Ethiopia. It is said that history is written by the victor. When truth becomes the victor in Ethiopia, the names Eskinder Nega and Serkalem Fasil will be inscribed in the Hall of Fame for unfaltering courage and steadfast endurance in the face of Evil.
The “heckler’s veto” is one of the most precious rights of American citizens. The idea is really simple. It is always governments who abuse their power to silence their critics and those who disagree with them. With the “heckler’s veto”, the individual silences the government and the powerful. The tables are turned. Zenawi was silenced by Abebe! In that moment, Abebe gloriously realized the true meaning of the tagline of his website addisvoice.com – “A Voice of the Voiceless”. Ironically, the voice of the voiceless rendered speechless the man who had rendered millions voiceless!
In June 2012, I joyously witnessed the unity of Christian and Muslim religious leaders against those seeking to divide them. Hajj Mohamed Seid, a prominent Ethiopian Muslim leader in exile in Toronto, made an extraordinary statement that should be a lesson to all Ethiopians: “As you know Ethiopia is a country that has different religions. Ethiopia is a country where Muslims and followers of the Orthodox faith have lived and loved each other throughout recorded history. Even in our lifetimes — 50 to 60 years — we have not seen Ethiopia in so much suffering and tribulation. Religion is a private choice, but country is a collective responsibility. If there is no country, there is no religion. It is only when we have a country that we find everything… They [the rulers in Ethiopia] have sold the land [to foreigners] and have kept the most arable land to themselves. The money from the sale is not in our country. It is in their pockets… Is there an Ethiopian generation left now? The students who enrolled in the universities are demoralized; their minds are afflicted chewing khat (a mild drug) and smoking cigarettes. They [the ruling regime] have destroyed a generation…
In July 2012, I held a private celebration on the occasion of the ninety-fourth birthday of President Nelson Mandela. May he live long with gladness and good health! Madiba has been a great inspiration for me very much like Gandhi. Madiba and Gandhi were lawyers who spoke truth to power fearlessly. For Madiba, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, true human rights advocacy was devoid of all political ambition. The politics of human rights is the politics of human dignity, not ideology, political partisanship or the pursuit of political office. The committed human rights advocate thrives on hopes and dreams of a better future, not the lust for political power or craving for status, position or privilege. I have been relentlessly “sermonizing” (as some affectionately refer to my weekly commentaries) on human rights in Ethiopia and against dictatorship for many years now. I have done so not because I believed my efforts will produce immediate political results or expected structural changes overnight. I stayed in for the long haul because I believe defending, advocating and writing about human rights and righting government wrongs is right, good and the moral thing to do.
In August 2012, I bade farewell to Meles Zenawi who passed away from an undisclosed illness. It was a difficult farewell to write. For over two hundred seventy five weeks, without missing a single week, I wrote long expository commentaries on the deeds and misdeeds of the man who was at the helm of power in Ethiopia for over two decades. Meles and I would have never crossed paths but for the massacres of 2005 in which some 200 unarmed protesters were shot dead in the streets and another 800 wounded by police and security officials under Meles’ personal command and control.
Meles was a man who had an appointment with destiny. Fate had chosen him to play a historic role in Ethiopia and beyond. He was one of the leaders of a rebel group that fought and defeated a brutal military dictatorship that had been in power for 17 years. In victory, Meles promised democracy, respect for democratic liberties and development. But as the years wore on, Meles became increasingly repressive, intolerant of criticism and in the end became as tyrannical as the tyrant he had replaced. In his last years, he created a police state reinforced by a massive security network of spies and surveillance technology. He criminalized press freedom and civil society institutions. He crushed dissent and all opposition. He spread fear and loathing that penetrated the remotest parts of the countryside. For over 21 years, Meles clutched the scepter of power in his hands and cast away the sword of justice he held when he marched into the capital from the bush in 1991. Meles was feared, disliked and demonized by his adversaries. He was loved, admired, idealized and idolized by his supporters. In the end, Meles died a man who had absolute power which had corrupted him absolutely. In his relentless pursuit of absolute power, Meles missed his appointment with destiny to become a peerless and exemplary Ethiopian leader.
In September 2012, I explained why I supported President Obama’s re-election. I tried to make an honest case for supporting the President’s re-election despite deep disappointments over his human rights records in Africa in his first term. Did President Obama deliver on the promises he made for Africa to promote good governance, democracy and human rights? Did he deliver on human rights in Ethiopia? No. Are Ethiopian Americans disappointed over the unfulfilled promises President Obama made in Accra, Ghana in 2009 and his Administration’s support for a dictatorship in Ethiopia? Yes. We remember when President Obama talked about the need to develop robust democratic institutions, uphold the rule of law and the necessity of maintaining open political space and protecting human rights in Africa. We all remember what he said: “Africa does not need strong men but strong institutions.” “Development depends on good governance.” “No nation will create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy.” Was he just saying these words or did he truly believe them? Truth be told, what the President has done or not done to promote good governance, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia is no different than what we, the vast majority of Ethiopian Americans, have done or not done to promote the same values in Ethiopia. That is the painful truth we must face.
In October 2012, I wrote about breast cancer awareness for Ethiopian women and men. There is a strange and confounding culture of secrecy and silence about certain kinds of illnesses among many Ethiopians in the country and those in the Diaspora. Among the two taboo diseases are cancer and HIV/AIDS. The rule seems to be hide the illness until death, even after death. We saw this regrettable practice in the recent passing of Meles Zenawi. Meles’ illness and cause of death remain a closely guarded state secret. It is widely believed that he died from brain cancer. This culture of secrecy and silence has contributed significantly to the needless deaths of thousands of Ethiopians. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that far too many Ethiopian women living in the U.S. have needlessly died from breast cancer because they failed or avoided to get regular breast cancer screening fearing a positive diagnosis. Secrecy and silence when it comes to breast cancer is a self-imposed death warrant!
In November 2012, I remembered. I remembered the hundreds of unarmed citizens murdered in the streets by police and security officials under the personal command and control of Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia on June 6-8 and November 1-4, 2005, following the Ethiopian parliamentary elections in May of that year. According to an official Inquiry Commission, “There was not a single protester who was armed with a gun or a hand grenade as reported by the government-controlled media that some of the protesters were armed with guns and bombs. [The shots fired by government forces] were not intended to disperse the crowd but to kill by targeting the head and chest of the protesters.” I also remembered Yenesew Gebre, a 29 year-old Ethiopian school teacher and human rights activist set himself ablaze outside a public meeting hall in the town of Tarcha located in Dawro Zone in Southern Ethiopia on 11/11/11. He died three days later from his injuries. Before torching himself, Yenesew told a gathered crowd outside of a meeting hall, “In a country where there is no justice and no fair administration, where human rights are not respected, I will sacrifice myself so that these young people will be set free.” I remembered why I was transformed from a cloistered armchair academic and hardboiled defense lawyer to a (com)passionate human rights advocate and defender.
In December 2012, I fiercely opposed the potential nomination of Susan Rice, the current U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. I argued that Rice has been waltzing (or should I say do-se-do-ing) with Africa’s slyest, slickest and meanest dictators for nearly two decades. Rice and other top U.S. officials knew or should have known a genocide was underway or in the making once RAF and interahamwe militia began killing people in the streets and neighborhoods on April 6, the day Rwandan President Juvenal Habyiarimana was assassinated. They were receiving reports from the U.N. mission in Rwanda; and their own intelligence pointed to unspeakable massacres taking place in Kigali and elsewhere in the country. Rice feigned ignorance of the ongoing genocide, but the irrefutable documentary evidence showed that Rice, her boss Anthony Lake and other high level U.S. officials knew from the very beginning (April 6, 1994) that genocide was in the making in Rwanda. On September 2, 2012 at the funeral of Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa and at a memorial service for Meles in New York City on October 27, 2012, Rice delivered a eulogy that virtually canonized Meles. In her blind eulogy, Rice turned a blind eye to the thousands of Ethiopians who were victimized, imprisoned and killed by Meles Zenawi. Rice could not see the police state Meles had created. To literally add insult to injury, Rice called Meles’ opponents and critics “fools and idiots”. Truth be told, I was deeply offended by Rice’s hubristic remarks and her audacity, pomposity, nerve and insolence to insult and humiliate Ethiopians in their own country in such callous and contemptuious manner. Ethiopians have been robbed of their dignity for 21 years. But I will be damned if any foreigner, however high or exalted, should feel free to demean, dehumanize and demonize my people as “fools and idoits”. Recently, Rice explained: “I know I’m vilified for having said anything other than, ‘He [Meles] was a tyrant,’ … which would’ve been a little awkward, on behalf of the U.S. government and in front of all the mourning Ethiopians.” Rice has no qualms calling Ethiopians “fools and idiots” but she writhes in agony just thinking about calling Meles a tyrant?!? Some people just don’t get it!!!
In 1994, Rice was willfully blind to the genocide in Rwanda. In 2012, she was willfully blind to the long train of human rights abuses and atrocities in Ethiopia.
America does not need a friend and a buddy to African dictators as its Secretary of State. America does not need a Secretary of State with a heart of stone and tears of a crocodile. America does not need a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” Secretary of State. America needs a Secretary of State who can tell the difference between human rights and government wrongs!
Let us join hands to ring in redress to all mankind in 2013. Let us all work together for human rights for all and against all government wrongs!
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:
A Newsweek article by Joshua Kurlantzick points out the shameful activities of some law/lobbying firms in Washington DC that are hired guns for criminal regimes around the world who are terrorizing their people. The most notorious among them is DLA Piper that receives over $50,000 per month from the genocidal junta in Ethiopia for lobbying U.S. Government officials to play down the brutal repression in the country. DLA Piper has also been trying to shut down Ethiopian Review on behalf of the Meles regime’s moneyman Al Amoudi. The effects of DLA Piper’s lobbying has been disastrous to Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region. Its client, the regime in Ethiopia, has been committing unspeakable atrocities through out Ethiopia and the region with impunity while getting billions of dollar in assistance from the US. In Ogaden and Gambella regions of Ethiopia, the regime’s troops wiped out entire villages, as documented by international human rights groups. The U.S. Government, which is quick to point out human rights violations around the world, has said little about Ethiopian regime’s crimes, due in large part to DLA Piper’s lobbying effort.
The Hired Guns: When leaders of rogue nations hire Washington lobbyists, opposition voices get crowded out.
Once the province of a few fringe players operating on the margins of Washington, lobbying for foreign countries has become big business for the most prestigious firms in D.C. According to data from the Department of Justice, the number of registrants—forms submitted by people registered to represent foreign countries—grew from about 1,800 in the first half of 2005 to 1,900 in the first half of 2009, the most recent data available. Human-rights activists say there has been a steeper rise, particularly in terms of dollars spent, among some of the most brutal regimes on earth, including several sanctioned by the U.S. for their human-rights abuses.
The Republic of the Congo spent $1.5 million on lobbying and PR firms and other representation in the first half of 2009 alone, according to reports compiled by the Justice Department. Angola, one of the most corrupt nations in the world, spent more than $3 million in that period. Teodoro Nguema Obiang, the brutal dictator of African petrostate Equatorial Guinea, who took power more than three decades ago in a coup, has hired the law firm of former Bill Clinton aide Lanny Davis to lobby on his behalf, for the annual sum of $1 million. (Davis says the arrangement is contingent on Obiang’s progress on human-rights issues.) Chris Walker, of the NGO Freedom House, says this is all a reflection of the fact that “authoritarian regimes recognize there is a greater payoff in participating in and influencing the decision-making process, rather than sitting it out.”
In the past, foreign lobbying by rogues in Washington was a relatively small game. Nazi agents lobbying in Washington before World War II had tainted the whole enterprise, a stain that would take decades to erase. Though allies like Japan or Britain could find representation, the task of shilling for the nastiest governments fell to those like Edward von Kloberg III. Wearing a cape and calling himself “Baron,” a made-up honor, he represented Saddam Hussein and Nicolae Ceausescu, among others. Many developing nations, including China, meanwhile, had little idea how to win influence in Washington through lobbying. China has built a lobby since its harsh experience in 2005, when Congress, playing upon a strong anti-China sentiment among constituents, scuttled an attempt by China National Offshore Oil Corp. to purchase American petroleum firm Unocal. Now even new regimes waste no time finding their men in Washington. After seizing power in a coup last summer, and facing immediate criticism from the Obama administration, Honduras’s new military rulers quickly spent at least $400,000 to hire powerful American firms to lobby for them.
One result is that lobbying has become less transparent. U.S. law requires lobbyists to disclose all contracts with foreign clients, but the reality is that filings about foreign clients offer little information, and some lobbyists simply don’t file. “I was so careful to document every phone call, every meeting, and then I found that some other people, they don’t file at all,” says one lobbyist who works extensively with foreign clients. “Does anything happen to them? Not really.” Since the mid-1960s, in fact, the U.S. government has never successfully prosecuted anyone for violating the disclosure rules.
The rise in foreign lobbying may have also compromised the policymaking of current and future U.S. government officials. With little oversight, lobbyists can represent the most repressive regimes and then turn around and work in government. According to John Newhouse, author of a forthcoming book on the influence of foreign lobbies on American policies, one of John McCain’s senior foreign-policy advisers during his 2008 campaign, Randy Scheunemann, simultaneously worked for McCain and as a paid adviser to the government of Georgia, which had been accused of human-rights violations. Despite McCain’s reputation as a leading champion of human rights, Scheunemann largely escaped questions about whether his lobbying might have affected his foreign-policy advice to the powerful senator. Similarly, while at Cassidy & Associates, lobbyist Amos Hochstein oversaw the Equatorial Guinea account, which required him to argue the merits of one of the most repressive regimes on earth. Still, after leaving Cassidy, Hochstein landed a prominent job on the (ill-fated) 2008 presidential campaign of Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, a politician also known for his longstanding human-rights advocacy. Now Hochstein says he helped “move the ball forward on human rights” in the country.
Lobbying can turn down the pressure on authoritarian regimes. After years of intense lobbying, Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang managed to transform his image in Washington from a venal autocrat into a solid American ally and buddy of U.S. business. In 2006 he strode out of a meeting at Foggy Bottom with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who declared him “a good friend.” Last year Obiang met with Obama for a public photo op, which is coveted by foreign leaders. Similarly, according to several congressional staffers, the authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan won support for its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe by hiring lobbyists to help quiet congressional critics of Kazakhstan’s human-rights record. Ethiopia’s lobbying, meanwhile, has helped to defuse charges that the government has turned increasingly authoritarian. In a memo sent to congressional offices, DLA Piper, representing Ethiopia, argued, “The terms ‘political prisoners’ and ‘prisoners of conscience’ are undefined and mischaracterize the situation in Ethiopia,” and should be removed from a bill that condemned the Ethiopian regime for detaining opposition activists.
All this has taken a toll. Many democratic countries retain lobbyists in Washington to handle issues like trade disputes or intellectual-property challenges. But in those free countries, human-rights activists or opponents of the government could hire their own lobbyists in Washington and make their cases to the American government. Not so in the world’s most repressive countries. Though there are rare exceptions, like the Tibetan government in exile, most human-rights activists in authoritarian countries cannot make the close connections in Washington, or come up with the funds needed to match the lobbying of leaders like Obiang. The result: while thugs get heard in Washington, the voices of their opponents remain silent.
(With R. M. Schneiderman in New York. Kurlantzick is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.)
UPDATE – December 28, 2012: Ethiopian Review sources are reporting that armed forces chief of staff Gen. Samora Yenus is back in a Germany hospital. In August, we reported that Samora, looking frail, returned to Addis Ababa to attend dictator Meles Zenawi’s funeral, and that he will return to the hospital.
UPDATE – August 21, 2012: Samora Yenus has been observed at Bole Airport today along with other TPLF junta officials receiving Meles Zenawi’s body. Our sources have verified that he returned to Addis Ababa two days ago from Germany, but he will return to continue his medical treatment.
The late Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi’s military chief of staff, Gen. Samora Yenus, is currently in Essen, Germany, receiving medical treatment.
Doctors at Essen University Hospital have diagnosed Samora with Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia, which is a symptom of AIDS, according to Ethiopian Review Intelligence Unit sources.
Samora was taken to Bole Airport by ambulance after he collapsed following a TPLF meeting last week, and flown to Germany.
Lt. General Seare Mekonnen is now in charge of the armed forces in Ethiopia, Ethiopian Review sources in Addis Ababa reported.