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U.S. Human Rights Policy Africa

Obama “Moonwalking” Human Rights in Africa?

Kenyatta The great American poet Walt Whitman said, “Either define the moment or the moment will define you.” Will the election of Uhuru Kenyatta as president of Kenya define President Barack Obama in Africa or will President Barack Obama use the election of President Kenyatta to define his human rights policy in Africa?

Following the presidential election in late December 2007 and the Kenya Electoral Commission’s hurried declaration of incumbent President Mwai Kibaki as the winner, supporters of opposition presidential candidate Raila Odinga in the Orange Democratic Movement alleged widespread electoral fraud and irregularities. For nearly two months following that election, ethnic violence and strife in Kenya raged resulting in more than 1200 deaths, 3,500 injuries, and the displacement of over 350,000 persons and destruction of over 100,000 properties.

In March 2011, Uhuru Kenyatta was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on various counts of crimes against humanity arising from the post-election violence.  The details of the ICC charges against Kenyatta and other defendants are set forth in exhaustive detail in a 10-count indictment.Kenyatta allegedly conspired, planned, financed, and coordinated violence against the supporters of Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement. He allegedly “controlled the Mungiki organization” and directed the commission of murders, deportations, rapes, persecutions, and other inhumane acts against civilians in the towns of Kibera, Kisumu, Naivasha, and Nakuru. Kenyatta’s trial is scheduled to start at The Hague on July 9. Kenyatta’s election running mate and vice president-elect William Ruto as well as other top Kenyan officials are part of  different ICC cases. Ruto’s trial has been postponed to May 28.

Kenyatta and Ruto are presumed innocent until proven guilty.  Kenyatta’s lawyer Steven Kay claimed the ICC charges were “determined on false evidence, evidence that was concealed from the defense and the facts underlying the charges have been put utterly and fully in doubt.”

U.S. efforts to ensure free and fair elections in Kenya after 2008

The U.S. was among the first nations to recognize the validity of Kenya’s 2007 presidential election.  At the time, U.S. State Department Spokesman Robert McInturff announced, “The United States  congratulates the winners and is calling for calm, and for Kenyans to abide by the results declared by the election commissionWe support the commission’s decision.” But U.S. validation of that election was completely unwarranted since there was substantial credible evidence of rampant electoral fraud and vote rigging in favor of Kibaki and considerable doubt about the neutrality and integrity of the Kenya Electoral Commission.

Over the past two years, the U.S. has made significant investments to promote free and fair elections in Kenya and prevent a repetition of the 2007 violence. According to the U.S. State Department, “since 2010, the U.S. Government has contributed more than $35 million to support electoral reform, civic education, and elections preparation in Kenya. In addition, since 2008, we have provided more than $90 million to support constitutional reform, conflict mitigation, civil society strengthening, and youth leadership and empowerment, all of which contribute significantly to the goal of free, fair, and peaceful elections in Kenya.”

Obama’s defining moment in Africa?

The March 2013 presidential election in which Kenyatta won by a razor thin margin of 50.7 percent is not entirely free of controversy. Raila Odinga, who received about 43 percent of the votes, has rejected the outcome of the election and filed action in court alleging collusion between the Kenyatta and the electoral commission, not unlike what happened in 2007. This time around, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offered only half-hearted congratulations and assurances to the people of Kenya and applauded the fortitude of those who counted the ballots. But his congratulatory statement belied an apparent disappointment as manifested in his omission of the names of the election victors.  “On behalf of the United States of America, I want to congratulate the people of Kenya for voting peacefully on March 4 and all those elected to office… I am inspired by the overwhelming desire of Kenyans to peacefully make their voices heard… We … will continue to be a strong friend and ally of the Kenyan people.”

Prior to the election, it seemed President Obama and his top African policy man Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson were playing a bit of the old “good cop, bad cop” routine. President Obama in a special video message to the people of Kenya said that though he is proud of his Kenyan heritage “the choice of who will lead Kenya is up to the Kenyan people. The United States does not endorse any candidate for office…” He assured Kenyans that they “will continue to have a strong friend and partner in the United States of America.” But Johnnie Carson who was also a former U.S. ambassador to Kenya, was more blunt in hinting to Kenyans that their “choices have consequences”. Carson hectored Kenyans that they “should be thoughtful about those they choose to be leaders, the impact their choices would have on their country, region or global community.” Does that mean electing ICC suspects in crimes against humanity could bring about crippling sanctions?

What is good for the goose is good for the gander?

Now that Kenyatta and Ruto are elected, will the U.S. do what it did with Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan, another notorious suspect indicted by the ICC? Or will Kenyatta and his government receive special dispensation from sanctions and other penalties?

Carson argued that Kenya and the Sudan are two different situations. “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.

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry seemed to provide a more direct response in his “congratulatory” statement in explaining why Kenya will get special treatment.  “Kenya has been one of America’s strongest and most enduring partners in Africa… and [the U.S] will continue to be a strong friend and ally of the Kenyan people.” That is diplomatese for “we will continue with business as usual in Kenya” come hell or high water at the ICC. Carson’s predecessor, Jendayi Frazer, cut to the chase: “Kenyatta knows that he needs the United States, and the United States knows it needs Kenya… And so I suspect that while it might be awkward, there won’t be a significant change in our policy stances toward Kenya or theirs toward us.”

A double standard of U.S. human rights policy in Africa?

It seems the U.S. has a double standard of human rights policy in Africa. One for those the U.S. does not like such as Bashir and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and another for those it likes like the late Meles Zenawi, Paul Kagame, Yuweri Museveni and now Uhuru Kenyatta.

Following Bashir’s ICC indictment in 2009,  Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, demanded his 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.” Just before her resignation last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton urged: “Governments and individuals who either conduct or condone atrocities of any kind, as we have seen year after year in Sudan, have to be held accountable.” The U.S. has frozen the assets of individuals and businesses allegedly controlled by Mugabe’s henchmen because the “Mugabe regime rules through politically motivated violence and intimidation and has triggered the collapse of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.”

Legend has it that President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza that “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”  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 others. None of these countries hold 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.

No case of double standard in U.S. human rights policy in Africa is more instructive than Equatorial Guinea where Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been in power since 1979. Teodoro Obiang is said to make  Robert Mugabe “seem stable and benign”. The U.S. maintains excellent relations with Teodoro Obiang because of vast oil reserves in Equatorial Guinea. 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 Teodoro Obiang’s son Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue to seize corruptly obtained assets including a $40 million estate in Malibu, California  overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a luxury plane and super-sports cars worth millions of dollars. In describing the seizure action, U.S. Assistant Attorney General  Lanny A. Breuer crowed, “We are sending the message loud and clear: the United States will not be a hiding place for the ill-gotten riches of the world’s corrupt leaders.” (Ironically, U.S. law requires the U.S. to return any assets or proceeds from an asset forfeiture court action to the government from which  it was stolen.  In other words, the assets or proceeds from the forfeiture action against  son Teodoro Nguema Obiang will eventually be returned to father Teodoro Obiang Nguema!!!)

But 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. For instance, Global Financial Integrity reported in 2011 reported that “Ethiopia, which has a per-capita GDP of just US$365, lost US$11.7 billion to illicit financial outflows between 2000 and 2009. In 2009, illicit money leaving the economy totaled US$3.26 billion, which is double the amount in each of the two previous years…” Is there really any one wonder who in Ethiopia has the ability to amass such wealth or “illicitly” ship it out of the country and where much of that cash is stashed? Suffice it to say that the dictators in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda… may be kleptocrats, criminals against humanity, genociders, election thieves, torturers, abusers of power… , but they are OUR kleptocrats, criminals against humanity…”

Does the Obama Administration have a (African) human rights policy?

If anyone is searching for the Obama Administration’s global or African human rights policy, s/he may (or may not) find it in the recent statements of  Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the United States. Posner 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 iteven 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…” But does “engagement” of African dictators mean sharing a cozy bed with them so that they can suck at the teats of American taxpayers to satisfy their insatiable aid addiction?

Since 2008, the U.S. Government has spent $125 million to support electoral reform, civic education, constitutional reform, conflict mitigation, civil society strengthening, and youth leadership and empowerment for free democratic elections in Kenya. But just north of the Kenyan border in Ethiopia, how much has the U.S. invested to support electoral reform, civic education, civil society strengthening, etc., has the U.S. invested? (That is actually a trick question. Civil society institutions are illegal in Ethiopia and no electoral reform is needed where the ruling party wins elections by 99.6 percent.)

In May 2010 after Meles Zenawi’s party won 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament, the White House issued a Statement expressing “concern that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments”; but the statement unambiguously affirmed that “we will work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people.” To paraphrase William Buckley, “I won’t insult the intelligence of the White House by suggesting that they really do believe the statement they had issued.”

“There’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain…”

There is a great moral irony in the Obama Administration’s human rights policy in Africa. The President seems to  believe that he is moving the African human rights agenda forward while appearing to be backsliding  metaphorically similar to Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk” dance. My humble personal view, (with all due respect to President Obama and his office and mindful of my own full support for his election in 2008 and re-election in 2012), is that President Obama needs to straight walk his  human rights talk, not “moonwalk” it. I feel he does not have the confidence in the power of American ideals that I have as a naïve academician and lawyer. He is in an extraordinary historical position in world history as a person of color to advance American ideals in convincing and creative ways. But it seems to me that he has chosen to stand his ground on expediency with little demonstrated faith in American ideals. He now finds himself on a tightrope of moral ambiguity, which impels his hand to choose expediency over consistency of ideals and principles every time he deals with African dictators. He has chosen the creed of realpolitik at a time in global history when the common man and woman stand their ground on principle and ideals of human dignity.

In the “Arab Spring”, ordinary Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians, Yemeni’s and others who have always faced privation, oppression, corruption and  destitution rose up and stood their ground on the principle of human dignity and the rights of Man and Woman. They wanted basic human dignity more than loaves of bread. It is true that one cannot eat dignity like bread nor drink it like milk. But dignity is like oxygen. It is the essence of human existence. If one cannot breathe, one can neither eat nor drink.  Human beings without dignity merely exist like the beasts of the wilderness — aimless, purposeless, meaningless, desultory, fearful and permanently insecure.

It seems to me President Obama has crossed over from the strength of American ideals to the weakness of political expediency. He has chosen to overlook and thereby excuse the cruelty and inhumanity of Africa’s ruthless dictators, their bottomless  corruption and their endless crimes against humanity. He says he will “engage” African dictators on human rights. Some “engagement” it is to wine, dine and lionize them as America’s trade partners and “partners on the war on terror”! But the real terror is committed by these dictators on their own people every day as they smash and trash religious liberties, steal elections, jail journalists, shutter newspapers, fill their jails with political prisoners and so on. “Engagement” of African dictators for the sake of the war on terror and oil has created a monstrous moral complacency which tolerates and justifies the ends of evil for the illusion of good.

In his first inaugural speech, President Obama served notice to the world’s dictators: “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” they are on the wrong side of history: “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.”

Senator Obama before becoming president said: “[Reinhold Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard.”

Perhaps President Obama has forgotten his philosophical roots. But Niebuhr’s philosophy has special relevance in dealing with not only the evils of communist totalitarianism but also the evils of dictatorships, criminals against humanity, kleptocrats,  abusers of power and genociders in Africa today.  I wish to remind President Obama of his words in 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.”

If I had a chance to have a word or two with President Obama, I would ask him eight naïve questions:

1) On which “side of history” are you?

2) If “Africa does not need strongmen”, why does America need them?

3) Why does America support governments that “do not respect the will of their own people” and as a direct result have made their countries failed states (not “prosperous, successful and stable ones”)?

4) Why can’t you help ordinary Africans “end tyranny” in the continent?

5) When will you stop “moonwalking” your  human rights talk and actually straight walk your eloquent talk in Africa?

6) What are you prepared to do in the next four years about the “serious evil” of dictatorship, corruption and abuse of power in Africa and stop using the war on terror and oil as an excuse for “cynicism and inaction” ?

7) Do you think the people of Africa will render a  “verdict” in your favor (assuming you care)?

8) When will you start living up to the “ideals that light up the world” and give up “expedience”?

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:


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

Alemayehu G. Mariam

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

The Human Rights Ledger of the Obama Administration

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

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

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

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

The Insanity of Doing Nothing

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

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

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

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

Walking the Human Rights Talk: Accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk the Human Rights Talk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

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