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Ethiopia Silences the United States on Human Rights Abuses

October 19, 2017
By: Elizabeth Fraser

In July 2017, when a House Resolution on human rights and democracy in Ethiopia (H. Res. 128) was heard in the Committee on Foreign Affairs, support for the bill was resounding. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) called the Ethiopian government a “corrupt regime” and “a dictatorship that knows no bounds.” Committee Chair Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) warned that the Ethiopian government must “take tangible steps to ensure opposition voices are protected, are respected, and are welcomed.”

The U.S. Capitol Building - Washington DC. Credit: Image overlaid with text, modified background. (CC BY 2.0)
“The U.S. Capitol Building - Washington DC.” Credit: Image overlaid with text, modified background. (CC BY 2.0).

With 71 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle now co-sponsoring the bill, it was no surprise that it passed easily, and unanimously, out of the committee.

The next step in the bill’s journey was expected to happen in early October, when it was scheduled for a vote by the House of Representatives. But in late September, the bill was pulled from the calendar. According to a joint letter by eight international and diaspora human rights organizations, this was because of “threats by the Ethiopian government that if the House proceeded with a vote, Ethiopia would withdraw as a partner on regional counterterrorism efforts.”

Ethiopia’s Waning Stability

The US has long relied on Ethiopia as a key partner in the Horn of Africa, viewing the country as a haven of stability in a strategic region. As a result, US government agencies have invested significant resources, equipment, and training on surveillance and counterterrorism operations in the country, the details of which were brought to light last month with the release of classified documents on the subject. In order to preserve this relationship, the US has also repeatedly turned a blind eye to the grave human rights abuses committed by the Ethiopian government and continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the government’s coffers in the name of humanitarianism and development.

But in the past 36 months, Ethiopia’s stability has waned – and the human rights abuses have mounted.

Last year, the Ethiopian government imposed a draconian state of emergency in an attempt to gain some semblance of control in the face of burgeoning anti-government protests. Over 1,000 people were killed by government forces in the protests, and tens of thousands more were arrested in the ensuing months. Meanwhile, innumerable journalists, land rights defenders, religious and indigenous leaders, students, and opposition politicians continue to be jailed using Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for raising grievances about the ruling party.

Since the state of emergency was lifted in August, state violence has continued. For example, the week that Congress was supposed to vote on H. Res. 128, Ethiopian government forces killed 10 and wounded nearly 50 over two days of protests in Oromia.

H. Res. 128: Necessary, but Insufficient

In this context, there’s a lot that makes H. Res. 128 a necessary measure. The bill calls for the end of excessive force by security forces, the repeal of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, the release of political prisoners (including opposition politician Bekele Gerba and indigenous leader Okello Akway Ochalla, who was sentenced to nine years in jail for speaking out about the situation of the indigenous Anuak people), the reinstatement of basic freedoms such as the freedoms of assembly and the press, and more.

But while the statements of condemnation in the bill are strong, the mechanisms for enforcement – namely asking USAID and the State Department to improve oversight and accountability of US assistance to Ethiopia, and applying sanctions on individuals and entities who have committed grave abuses in line with the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act – are insufficient.

Unfortunately, western donors and agencies have a history of insufficient enforcement mechanisms in Ethiopia. For four years running, US Appropriations Bills have included language stating that US development aid cannot be used for programs associated with forced evictions in the country. However, no enforcement or accountability regarding this clause has ever been undertaken.

Similarly, in 2012, a complaint by indigenous Anuak people was filed with the World Bank Inspection Panel accusing the Bank’s Promoting Basic Services (PBS) program of financing forced evictions and human rights abuses in the Gambella region. An investigation was undertaken and a damning report filed. But rather than take meaningful action, the Bank quickly folded the PBS program and launched a nearly identical program under a new name, with no guarantees that abuses would cease. To make matters worse, the US Treasury voted in favor of this new problem, violating the very directives included in the annual Appropriations Bills noted above!

The Real Threat of H. Res. 128

Why, then, is the Ethiopian government so threatened by this bill?

As Yoseph Badwaza of Freedom House recently wrote, much of Ethiopia’s strategy for development rests on maintaining its reputation “as a development success story, a champion of peace, and a bastion of stability in the troubled Horn of Africa region.” This success story has led to massive investments, not just by the US, but by other donor governments and multilateral agencies around the world. As one example, the World Bank recently signed a five-year Country Partnership Framework worth upwards of US$5 billion with Ethiopia. If this carefully crafted success story comes crashing down, it could have grave, and serious economic consequences for Ethiopia.

As a result, the Ethiopian government has invested significant funds in lobbying efforts to defeat H. Res. 128 and its companion bill S. Res. 168. This is likely also why it has threatened Congress that it will pull out of regional counterterrorism efforts if the bill proceeds.

The US Must Take a Stand

When Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced H. Res. 128 at the House Committee meeting in July, he said that the resolution “is like a mirror held up to the Government of Ethiopia on how others see them.” It appears that the real threat to the Ethiopian government isn’t so much holding up a mirror to its own atrocities, but showing other donors that the US is finally willing to speak up about the human rights abuses it has been ignoring.

Sadly, while Congress delays its vote, thousands continue to be arbitrarily arrested, tortured, forcibly evicted, and more in Ethiopia. The very least we can do is take a stand, and the US government should do it now.