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Steel vices, clenched fists and closing walls (part I)

It seems the concern for the liberation of the oppressed injected into US foreign policy is merely a muted growl from a seemingly ‘toothless and clawless (paper) tiger’, writes Alemayehu G. Mariam. Mariam voices the frustrations of those in Ethiopia who lay witness to the empty human rights rhetoric of US foreign policy makers, and urges the US to back up its big human rights talk with big human rights action in the country so to avoid its descent as a silent witness to the crimes of dictatorship.


Teddy ‘The Rough Rider’ Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the US, had many faults, but one of them was not an 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 US should ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’. Exactly a century later, appeasement seems to be the hallmark of US 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 vices, 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?


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 artfully told Africa’s ‘strongmen’ 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, US 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 organisation of democracies and democratising 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 vice 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 organisations, human rights advocates and other nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) 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 organisations 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 US 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?’

Secretary Clinton outlined the four pillars of the Obama administration’s approach to ‘putting our principles into action’. She declared that US 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 organisations within communities and across borders’. Finally, she announced the US ‘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’.


Secretary Clinton said the acid test for the success or failure of US 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, US 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 organisations are criminalised, decertified and cut off 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 US and Western aid. In the 2010 Failed States Index, Ethiopia is ranked 17 out of 177 countries (Somalia is ranked as the most 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 US government broadcasting in 44 languages), and by implication the US 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 organisations 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’.[1] 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 US actions help promote free and fair elections? Zenawi’s allied party won 99.6 per cent of the parliamentary seats in May 2010. Zenawi chafed publicly at the loss of the 0.4 per cent 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 per cent for Zenawi and his party! The European Union Elections Observation Mission (EOM), The White House and the US Department of State 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 US actions? (Just a rhetorical question.)


Some people cynically and pejoratively characterise US human rights declarations in its foreign policy as hypocritical ‘cheap talk’. They argue that the US 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.[2] 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.[3] 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 US 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 colour is not just blue; it is also red and white. Ethiopia’s dictators see only the blue that signifies American vigilance, patience and perseverance against injustice. They don’t know what the red and white signify. It’s time to let them know the real meaning of the colours 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.



* This article was originally published by The Huffington Post.
* Alemayehu G. Mariam is professor of political science at California State University (CSU) San Bernardino.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.