Washington Puts Ethiopia’s Human Rights Abusers on Notice

Politics News

The very least the U.S. government can do this time is taking a stand

Ethiopian regime has long declined to undertake its own credible investigations of human rights violations
Swift and Decisive Action. Is a more aggressive U.S. approach to human rights likely to produce swift results where past policies of turning a blind eye and appeasement of repressive African regimes have failed?


In the lore of the Wild West, cowboys would have quick-draw duels at noon when the sun is high in the sky. It is a do-or-die moment. The U.S. Congress has set high noon on February 28, 2018, for the Ethiopian government to meet its demands for human rights accountability in H.Res.128 or face the music on the House floor.

At an impromptu press conference last week, Reps. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) and Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) delivered the showdown ultimatum:

“Should the Ethiopian government not announce by February 28th that it will allow the independent UN teams access, H.Res.128 would be sent to the floor irrespective of retaliatory threats by the Ethiopian government.”

The Ethiopian regime has long declined to undertake its own credible investigations of human rights violations and spurned investigative exhortations by Congress. Since 2007, the regime has denied entry to all UN special rapporteurs seeking to undertake independent investigations.

Smith announced an agreement has been reached with House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy “for floor action (on HR 128)”. He warned,

“The Ethiopian government must show action, real tangible reform or that resolution will be on the floor.”

Smith emphatically declared:

“We want the people of Ethiopia to enjoy human rights they are guaranteed, universally recognized human rights. People are being tortured. Journalists are being mistreated. All of that is unacceptable.”

Coffman added:

“For too long the United States has looked the other way on the human rights abuses of Ethiopia in favor of their security cooperation while Ethiopia is terrorizing its own people, and it is time the United States acknowledges the problems of Ethiopia to respect human rights and become a pluralistic democracy.”

For years, the Obama administration turned a blind eye to human rights violations in Ethiopia. In July 2015, Obama legitimized the Ethiopian governing party, which claimed to have won 100 percent of parliamentary seats in May 2015, calling it “democratically elected.” Between 2010 and 2016, the U.S. provided well over $5 billion to Ethiopia, making it the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid in Africa.

H.Res.128 is aimed at “supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia.” A floor vote on the resolution was scheduled on October 2, 2017 but was withdrawn, Coffman’s office writes, following a “threatened retaliation against the United States should it be passed.” To defeat the resolution, the Ethiopian regime “hired a Washington D.C. lobbying firm for $150,000 month”.

S.Res.168, mirroring the House version, was introduced by Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and co-sponsored by 23 senators. A similar bill (H.R. 2003) passed in the House of Representatives in October 2007 but died in the Senate.

In early January 2018, the Ethiopian regime announced the release of political prisoners, whose existence the country had denied for more than a decade. A major opposition leader was released and charges against hundreds of others were dismissed.

On February 8, the Ethiopian regime announced it will be releasing 746 more prisoners including Eskinder Nega, the internationally-celebrated journalist, and Andualem Aragie, a dynamic young lawyer and opposition leader, whose detention was condemned by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention as “arbitrary”. Both refused to sign what they say are false confessions in exchange for their release.

Is concern over human rights trumping what had been an all-consuming U.S. counterterrorism cooperation policy with Ethiopia in the Trump era? Is a more aggressive U.S. approach to human rights likely to produce swift results where past policies of turning a blind eye and appeasement of repressive African regimes have failed?

In September 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley told Ethiopian authorities, according to reports, “that they face growing instability if undemocratic practices continue.” In early December 2017, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Donald Yamamoto stated the Trump administration will be “very aggressive” and “vigilant” on human rights and good governance issues in Africa. In February 2018, Congress is playing hardball with the Ethiopian regime and political prisoners are finally being released.

I believe the U.S. is taking a more aggressive approach for three reasons.

First, it is becoming increasingly clear to the U.S. that Ethiopia, one of the more stable countries in the Horn of Africa, is slowly sliding towards an ethnic civil war as an entrenched repressive ethnic minority regime shuts down all political space. Smith, Yamamoto, and Haley euphemistically use the word “stability” to signify their concern about an interethnic civil war in Ethiopia. This puts the U.S. on the horns of dilemma: risk losing counterterrorism cooperation with the Ethiopian regime by pressuring changes or act aggressively to improve human rights and avert a civil war.

Second, the current crises present a unique opportunity to the U.S. to pressure the Ethiopian regime into making significant improvements in human rights and political concessions. The regime which at one time presented a monolithic face under the leadership of the late Meles Zenawi is today in a state of disarray. As Rene Lefort wrote, the regime’s “ethnic federalism” has fostered “ethno-nationalism (that) is intensifying to the point of detonation, triggering centrifugal forces in the federal system of power.”

Third, the U.S. Congress and the Trump administration are realizing that standing up for American values is more effective in improving human rights in Africa than appeasing African dictators and accepting their human rights violations.

It is reasonable to assume members of Congress and the State Department are coordinating on human rights policy in Ethiopia. In 2009, Ambassador Yamamoto argued for “swift and decisive action” to improve human rights, which is precisely what H.Res.128 aims to accomplish today.

Rep. Smith said, “We want the people of Ethiopia to enjoy human rights.”

The ball is in the Ethiopian regime’s court. The countdown clock for a showdown on the Hill at high noon on February 28, 2018, keeps on ticking.

Alemayehu (Al) Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, with research interests in African law and human rights. He is a constitutional lawyer and senior editor of the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies.