The Senate Resolution states in plain words that crimes against humanity have been committed in Ethiopia under T-TPLF rule and that there must be a full, credible, and transparent investigation into the killings and instances of excessive use of force that took place as a result of protests in the Oromia region and hold security forces accountable for wrongdoing through public proceedings.
Last July, Barack Obama visited Ethiopia and declared the ruling Thugtatoship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (T-TPLF) regime a “democratic government.”
The T-TPLF claimed with a straight face that it had won the 2015 “election” by 100 percent or all 547 seats in “parliament”.
The New York Times called it a “sham”.
Human Rights Watch called Obama’s statement “shocking”.
I called it a low down dirty shame.
On April 20, 2016, Senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Patty Murry (D-WA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Al Franken (D-MN), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) sponsored a Resolution condemning the crimes against humanity being committed by the T-TPLF in Ethiopia today.
Well, they did not exactly use the phrase “crimes against humanity.” But that was exactly what they meant in their Resolution.
Senator Cardin commenting on his introduction of the Supporting Respect for Human Rights and Encouraging Inclusive Governance in Ethiopia said:
I am shocked by the brutal actions of the Ethiopian security forces, and offer condolences to the families of those who have been killed. The Ethiopian constitution affords its citizens the right to peaceful assembly and such actions by Ethiopian government forces are unacceptable. The government’s heavy-handed tactics against journalists and use of the 2009 Anti-Terrorism and Charities and Societies Proclamations to stifle free speech and legitimate political dissent demonstrate a troubling lack of respect for democratic freedoms and human rights. Given the challenges posed by the devastating drought and border insecurity, it is more important than ever that the government take actions to unify rather than alienate its people. It is critical that the government of Ethiopia respect fundamental human rights if it is to meet those challenges.
Senator Rubio echoed the same sentiment:
Peaceful protestors and activists have been arrested, tortured and killed in Ethiopia for simply exercising their basic rights. I condemn these abuses and the Ethiopian government’s stunning disregard for the fundamental rights of the Ethiopian people. I urge the Obama Administration to prioritize respect for human rights and political reforms in the U.S. relationship with Ethiopia.
Obama turned a deaf ear to Senator Rubio’s plea. To add insult to injury, Obama stood up in Addis Ababa and shamelessly declared the T-TPLF is a “democratic government”.
It is to be recalled that Senator Rubio wrote a letter to Obama a few days before Obama visited Ethiopia in July 2015 “highlighting” his “concerns regarding ongoing human rights abuses by the Ethiopian government against its own people.” Senator Rubio warned in his letter:
Although the United States and Ethiopia share an interest in fighting terrorism and securing stability through the region, it is essential that the U.S. does not turn a blind eye to Ethiopia’s human rights abuses. By shutting down avenues to express dissent through the political process, civil society, or media, Ethiopia’s government may fuel further instability in the country.
Brutality by government forces is a crime against humanity.
U.N. Security Ban Ki-Moon said, “The acts of brutality [by the Syrian government] that are being reported may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes. Such acts must be investigated and the perpetrators held to account.”
That is exactly what the U.S. Senators are saying and calling for in their Resolution.
The Senate Resolution states in plain words that crimes against humanity have been committed in Ethiopia under T-TPLF rule and there must be “a full, credible, and transparent investigation into the killings and instances of excessive use of force that took place as a result of protests in the Oromia region and hold security forces accountable for wrongdoing through public proceedings.”
But the Resolution goes well beyond a simple statement of disapproval and criticism.
I believe the Resolution represents the senators’ sentiments, views and positions on four distinct issues. The Resolution 1) totally condemns T-TPLF’s crimes against humanity, 2) expresses impatience and dissatisfaction with the Obama Administration’s do-nothing about human rights approach in Ethiopia, 3) demands direct policy action by the U.S. Secretary of State to secure improvements in the human rights situation in Ethiopia or to review use of US aid as leverage, and 4) serves clear notice to USAID to undertake programs and activities that could help improve human rights and democratization in Ethiopia.
The catalog of T-TPLF crimes against humanity in the Resolution
I believe the first part of the Resolution, for all intents and purposes represents, amounts to a legislative “indictment” against the T-TPLF for crimes against humanity.
The Senate Resolution declares that T-TPLF has:
- Engaged in “serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, killings, and torture committed by security forces as well as restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of association, politically motivated trials, harassment, and intimidation of opposition members and journalists.”
- Engaged in “state sponsored violence against those exercising their rights to peaceful assembly in Oromia and elsewhere in the country, and the abuse of laws to stifle journalistic freedoms, stand in direct contrast to democratic principles and in violation of Ethiopia’s constitution”.
- Caused “democratic space in Ethiopia [to] steadily diminish since the general elections of 2005”.
- Rigged elections and claimed to have won “100 percent of parliamentary seats”.
- Abused a so-called “Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to limit press freedom, silence independent journalists, and persecute members of the political opposition.”
- Restricted and virtually stamped out “civil society and nongovernmental organizations, particularly those investigating alleged violations of human rights by governmental authorities”.
- Persecuted and prosecuted journalists and bloggers and created a climate of fear and “coercive environment” for the press.
- Killed “at least 200 peaceful protesters in the Oromia region, and that number is likely higher.”
Condemnation of the T-TPLF regime in the Resolution
The Senate Resolution without reservation,
Condemns (A) killings of peaceful protesters and excessive use of force by [T-TPLF] security forces; (B) [T-TPLF] arrest and detention of journalists, students, activists and political leaders who exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and expression through peaceful protests; and (C) [T-TPLF] abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle political and civil dissent and journalistic freedoms.
Call for T-TPLF Action in the Resolution
The Senate Resolution makes specific demands on the T-TPLF:
- Halt the use of excessive force by security forces;
- Conduct a full, credible, and transparent investigation into the killings and instances of excessive use of force that took place as a result of protests in the Oromia region and hold security forces accountable for wrongdoing through public proceedings;
- Release dissidents, activists, and 13 journalists who have been jailed, including those 14 arrested for reporting about the protests, for exercising constitutional rights;
- Respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and guarantee freedom of the 18 press and mass media in keeping with Articles 19, 30 and 29 of the Ethiopian constitution;
- Engage in open and transparent consultations relative to its development strategy, especially those strategies that could result in people’s displacement from land;
- Repeal proclamations that can be used as a political tool to harass or prohibit funding for civil society organizations that investigate human rights violations, engage in peaceful political dissent, or advocate for greater political freedoms;
- Repeal proclamations that prohibit or otherwise limit those displaced from their land from seeking remedy or redress in courts, or that do not provide a transparent, accessible means to access justice for those displaced.
“Step up”: The Obama Administration’s must abandon its do-nothing policy to improve human rights in Ethiopia
The Resolution diplomatically intimates that the Obama Administration has done little or nothing to help improve the human rights situation in Ethiopia.
Stripped off the diplomatic euphemism, the Resolution asserts the Obama administration has been talking the human rights talk in Ethiopia but unwilling to walk the human rights talk.
The Resolution declares that Obama got T-TPLF leaders to “commit” to “deepen the democratic process and work towards the respect of human rights and improving governance” in July 2015, but the outcome since has been massacres and more repression.
The Resolution calls on the Obama Administration to “review of security assistance to Ethiopia in light of recent developments and to improve transparency with respect to the purposes of such assistance to the people of Ethiopia”.
The Resolution further “calls on the Secretary of State [and] the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, to improve oversight and accountability of United States assistance to Ethiopia.
Senate affirmation of respect for human rights in Ethiopia
The Senate Resolution affirms that the U.S. Senate “stands by the people of Ethiopia, and supports their peaceful efforts to increase democratic space and to exercise the rights guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution.”
What does the Resolution really mean?
It is important to note that the Senate Resolution (“simple resolution) is a legislative act intended to signify the Senate’s “sense” of what is happening in Ethiopia and what needs to be done. (See Senate Rule 30, adopted 2/4/15.)
When the Senate seeks to state its views, opinions and position, make a point or send a warning on an issue of importance, it employs a simple resolution to get its message across. The Senate Resolution on Ethiopia aims to express the opinion of a majority of Senators.
It is also important to understand simple resolutions, unlike regular “bills” and “resolutions” do not have the force or effect of law nor do they require presidential signature.
So, a reasonable question is why bother to pass a “simple resolution”?
Though simple resolution do not have the binding effect of law, they serve some important purposes. They are used by either house of Congress to:
- Go on record and take a position on a particular issue and express support or opposition for a particular action, policy, proposal, idea, plan, program, etc.
- Generate preliminary support or opposition among members for an intended or anticipated action and build momentum;
- Serve notice to the President that the Senate or House are contemplating imminent action on a particular issue and urge executive corrective action obviating the need for more formal legislative action.
- Notify U.S. departments and agencies and foreign governments that the U.S. Congress is watching a specific issue with special attention and concern.
- Communicate a specific message in foreign affairs (to foreign leaders) that a certain state of affairs in a particular country or region is unacceptable to the people of the United States and that legislative actions could follow if the circumstances persist;
- Apply subtle pressure on foreign governments to make changes in policy.
- Signify a change in policy or possible forthcoming legislation.
- Signify the possibility of public hearings.
The bottom line is that Senate resolutions are taken very seriously by most foreign governments and agencies and department of the U.S. Government. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the T-TPLF ignoramuses will chafe and ignore it.
Faced with a similar legislative situation in 2007, Meles Zenawi, the late leader of the T-TPLF, angrily and sarcastically lashed out at Congress at the U.S. Congress: “The Ethiopian government isn’t willing and is unable to be run like a banana republic from Capitol Hill or anywhere else.”
In 2009, I demonstrated that Meles’ government was quite willing to be treated like a “barley republic from Jeddah or any of the other Gulf states.” At the time, Zenawi was handing out millions of acres of Ethiopian land to so-called Saudi and Gulf “investors”.
In the Ethiopia Senate Resolution, there is little doubt that the T-TPLF will pay special attention. I do not doubt that the T-TPLF is consulting its Big Bucks lobbyist on what to do to nip the resolution in the bud. The T-TPLF has learned from the past (RememberH.R. 2003) that if it pays its lobbyists USD $50,000 a month it could stop cold any legislation in the U.S. Congress.
Demand for USAID accountability in the senate Resolution
My readers will recall my letter to USAID Administrator Gayle E. Smith dated March 16, 2016, in which I demanded accountability and transparency in USAID administration of American aid in Ethiopia. I asked Ms. Smith:
What safeguards, if any, are in place to ensure the ruling regime will not put any of the $500 million to political purposes?
What accountability processes are in place to ensure the prevention of corruption in the administration of the aforementioned assistance in Ethiopia? How much of the $500 million is provided to the ruling regime in Ethiopia in the form of discretionary or non-discretionary expenditures?
I am glad to see the April 20, 2016 Senate Resolution makes a similar demand by
call[ing] on the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, to improve oversight and accountability of United States assistance to Ethiopia pursuant to expectations established in the President’s 2012 Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa.
There are many who ask myriad questions about the Senate Resolution. Why now? Where have they been all these years? Does the resolution mean the Senate has something “up its sleeve”? Is it just rhetoric? What is going to happen next? Is the Senate really serious about human rights violations in Ethiopia? Should Ethiopians be hopeful the resolution will produce immediate improvements in the human rights situation in Ethiopia? Will the Senate resolution end up being just talk and no action? And on and on.
It is hard to give definitive answers to these questions.
The U.S. legislative process is very complex requiring bicameral action to enact legislation subject to presidential veto. The American legislative system is structurally designed to function in a slow and deliberate process subject to constitutional and internal legislative rules.
We have learned firsthand how a bill to promote human rights and democracy could be subjected to massive lobbying efforts to defeat it when we worked to pass H.R. 2003 (Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act).
Regardless, I am not concerned.
I wholeheartedly agree with Thomas Payne, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who said in a speech on December 23, 1776:
Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value… I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.
I am smiling!
*Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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