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

Alemayehu G. Mariam | July 26th, 2010

Note: This is the second 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 the price of U.S. lip service to human rights in Ethiopia without action is demoralization of the brave and dedicated Ethiopians who struggle everyday against dictatorship and tyranny, trivialization and crippling of efforts to build a strong human rights movement and disempowerment and discouragement of ordinary Ethiopians aspiring to a democratic future.

If the Silenced Majority Could Talk…

If the silenced majority inside of what has become Prison Nation Ethiopia (PNE) could talk, what would they tell President Obama and Secretary Clinton about U.S. human rights policy? Would they pat them on the back and say, “Good job! Thank you for helping us live in dignity with our rights protected.”? Or would they angrily wag an accusatory finger and charge, “You speak with forked tongue. You wax eloquent on your lofty principles to us in the morning while you consort with thugs and murderers in the afternoon.” What would the thousands of political prisoners rotting within the closed walls of dictator Meles Zenawi’s prisons say of America’s big human rights talk? “Practice what you preach, Mr. President!” What would Birtukan Midekssa, Ethiopia’s No. 1 political prisoner, first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history and the undisputed heroine of 80 million Ethiopians say to President Obama were she allowed to speak to him? “Mr. President, why do you turn a deaf ear when I have been silenced in solitary confinement?” What would the innocent victims gripped in the jaws of Zenawi’s steel vises say to Secretary Clinton in their faint whimpers from the torture chambers? I do not know. What I know for sure is that the silenced majority of Ethiopians does speak loud in bootless cries while gasping for air under the jackboots of a barbaric dictatorship. President Obama, can you hear their deafening silence?

The Belly v. The Ballot

The defenders of the dictatorship in Ethiopia argue that the masses of ordinary Ethiopians are interested in the politics of the belly and not the politics of the ballot. They do not care about human rights or democracy because they are concerned about finding their daily bread. The masses of poor, illiterate, hungry and sick Ethiopians in their view are too dumb and too damn needy to appreciate “political democracy”. “Economic democracy before political democracy,” they proclaim with certainty. They condemn free speech, free press, free elections, and indeed freedom itself as alien Western ideologies that are meaningless to the masses of poor and hungry Ethiopians. Ethiopia’s dictators are quick to stand on their hind legs and condemn the West for violating their sovereignty because the West insists on human rights observances in Ethiopia. Of course, these rights are not some bizarre imported ideas but core element of the organic law of Ethiopia which incorporates by reference all of the major international human rights conventions. All African dictators have been justifying their dictatorships for well over one-half century by claiming that there is democracy before democracy in Africa.[2]

I raise the belly v. ballot argument to contextualize American human rights policy in Ethiopia. The evidence suggests that the attitudes and perceptions of American (and other Western) policy makers may be latently contaminated by the view that human rights are not of concern or are not important to the tired, poor and huddled Ethiopian masses. I have heard it said artfully in moments of candor by those who have access to U.S. decision-makers, by some decision-makers themselves and even by certain of my learned friends that the majority of ordinary Ethiopians neither know of nor understand their human rights. Even if they are aware of their rights, they do not have a clue as to how to defend them. As a result, I am told, the interests of the ordinary Ethiopian citizens do not figure in the least in U.S. human rights policy calculations. Some have even pointed out to me (much to my disappointment, embarrassment and chagrin) that the lack of informed and vigorous human rights debate and sustained and organized human rights advocacy among Ethiopian elites within and without Ethiopia is clear and convincing evidence that human rights are not important to Ethiopians. I am advised to accept the fact that U.S. human rights rhetoric is primarily intended for international media consumption and to give moral support to the few human rights-minded Ethiopian elites while avoiding the scathing criticisms of the international human rights community for U.S. inaction and hypocrisy. “That is realpolitik for you,” said one of my erudite colleagues jokingly. “The U.S. would rather blather about human rights violations to the African masses in the morning only to sit down for a seven-course meal with Africa’s murderers and butchers in the afternoon.”

Introducing the Unsung Heroes of Ethiopian Human Rights to U.S. Policy Makers

I strongly disagree with those who sideline ordinary Ethiopians as too poor and hungry to be concerned about their human rights or good governance. I could not disagree more with the cynics who claim that ordinary Ethiopians do not know or care about their human rights as long as their bellies are full. In fact the contrary can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. When the 2005 elections were stolen by Zenawi in broad daylight and opposition leaders were hunted down, arrested and jailed, it was not the elites, the privileged and the degreed that came out to defend democracy and human rights. The people who stood up for democracy, freedom and human rights when it really counted were the poor, the urban laborers, the students, the unemployed, the slum dwellers, the retired and plain ordinary folks. The true unsung heroes of Ethiopian human rights are Tensae Zegeye, age 14; Debela Guta, age 15; Habtamu Tola, age 16; Binyam Degefa, age 18; Behailu Tesfaye, age 20; Kasim Ali Rashid, age 21; Teodros Giday Hailu, age 23; Adissu Belachew, age 25; Milion Kebede Robi, age 32; Desta Umma Birru, age 37; Tiruwork G. Tsadik, age 41; Admasu Abebe, age 45. Elfnesh Tekle, age 45; Abebeth Huletu, age 50; Etenesh Yimam, age 50; Regassa Feyessa, age 55. Teshome Addis Kidane, age 65; Victim No. 21762, age 75 and Victim No.21760, male, age unknown and hundreds more. These were the real defenders of human rights in Ethiopia. Their story is memorialized for history in the testimony of Yared Hailemariam,[3] an extraordinary human rights defender and investigator for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), before the European Parliament Committees on Development and Foreign Affairs, and Subcommittee on Human Rights in May 2006 [Warning: The graphic content in Yared Hailemariam’s testimony cited in the link in footnote 3 may be disturbing to some readers. Reader discretion is strongly advised.] and the report of the official Inquiry Commission that investigated the violence in the post-2005 election period.

If American policy makers are giving lip service to human rights in Ethiopia to please the few elites or immunize themselves from criticism by the international human rights community, their concern is truly misplaced. Human rights in Ethiopia is not about the elites yapping about human rights, nor is it about fine intellectual discussions, philosophical debates, speeches, annual reports or legal analyses of the nature and importance of human rights. It is much, much simpler than that. It is about helping to bring to justice the killers and those who authorized the killings of Tensae Zegeye, age 14; Debela Guta, age 15; Habtamu Tola, age 16 and all the rest. It is not about a metaphorical “closing walls”; it is about getting released the thousands of innocent political prisoners languishing behind the prison walls. It is not about an imaginary clenched fist but the real iron fist of a dictatorship that crushes citizens mercilessly every day. It is not about metaphorical steel vises, but about those who cling to power like blood-sucking leeches on a milk cow.

American policy makers should not be dismissive of ordinary Ethiopians. They should not misinterpret their silence for consent to be brutalized by dictatorship. Ordinary Ethiopians may not know much about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the numerous protocols, resolutions and declarations. They may not even know of Article 13 of their Constitution which incorporates all of the major international human rights conventions as part of their rights. But there should be no doubt that all of them know that as human beings, no person has the moral or legal right to take their lives just because he wants to, jail them and throw away the key because he feels like it or rule them for decades against their will by training a gun to their heads. That is all the human rights knowledge they need to know to deserve the respect and support of the American government.

Stability v. Human Rights

It has been argued and anonymously reported in the media that “Western diplomats” in Addis Ababa believe that forceful U.S. action on human rights could create “instability” in the country. To talk about stability in a dictatorship is like talking about the stability of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl just before it suddenly exploded. But the whole U.S. “stability” subterfuge to do nothing, absolutely nothing, about gross human rights violations in Ethiopia is eerily reminiscent of a shameful period in American history. The principal argument against the abolition of slavery in the U.S., the ultimate denial of human rights, was “stability”. Defenders of slavery strenuously argued that if slavery ended, the American South would simply disintegrate and collapse because the slave labor-based economy would be unable to sustain itself. They predicted that there would be widespread unemployment and chaos leading to uprisings, bloodshed, and anarchy. To ensure the “stability” of the South, even the United States Supreme Court joined in with its most infamous decision and held that the U.S. Constitution protected slave-holders’ rights to their property. But history proved that keeping the institution of slavery became the very undoing of the American union when the civil war was fought. America came apart at the seams because slavery that denied fundamental human rights to African slaves was retained, not because it was abolished. American policy makers should see the historical parallels. The undoing and unraveling of Ethiopia will be the result of sustained and gross violations of human rights by the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi, not because of respect for and observance of human rights. Perhaps we can crystallize the issue for American policy makers in the language of the American Declaration of Independence: It is necessary for Ethiopia to go through a civil war to ensure that every Ethiopian has the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…”?

President Obama’s Challenge in Ethiopia and Africa

President Obama now faces a great challenge in Africa, and particularly in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. His African human rights rhetoric is being tested by the cunning dictators on the continent who are scheming to counter his every move. They are prepared to test his mettle to find out how far they can push him before he pushes back. So far, Zenawi has succeeded in cowering the U.S. into inaction and paralysis.

President Obama will soon have to make some tough decisions in his choices in the Horn of Africa. He can choose to let progress on human rights and democracy die on the vine by handing over American tax dollars to sustain bloodthirsty regimes to oppress their citizens, or use the same tax dollars to pressure for change. President Obama is said to be “a pragmatist” concerned about “problem-solving.” He has got a hell of a problem in Ethiopia and must make some tough choices. His major choice will not be between “stability” and human rights, nor will it be a choice between the forces of radicalism and terrorism and democracy in the Horn as the dictators want him to believe. The one and only choice he has is how to help Ethiopia become permanently stable by ensuring the protection of the human rights of its citizens. There will be neither peace nor stability in Ethiopia until the human rights of every citizen are protected.

Zenawi complains that the U.S. and the West in general interfere in Ethiopian affairs too much by insisting on human rights observances and demanding democratization. But by Zenawi’s measure, the U.S. has been “interfering” in Ethiopia for nearly two decades, handing out to him tens of billions of dollars in aid. But for U.S. aid and loans by multilateral institutions under U.S. control, his dictatorship could not last even a single day. If the U.S. is serious about progress on human rights, it will have to kink the aid hose line just a bit. It is guaranteed that someone will be shrieking at the receiving end, “Uncle! Please Uncle Sam!”

Giving lip service to human rights in Ethiopia without action is tantamount to demoralization of the brave and dedicated Ethiopians who struggle everyday against dictatorship and tyranny, trivialization and crippling of efforts to build a strong human rights movement and disempowerment and discouragement of ordinary Ethiopians aspiring to a democratic future. It has been said that, “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” The most critical need in Ethiopia today is neither food nor water (though they are very much needed), but HOPE. The U.S. has a moral obligation to keep hope alive in Ethiopia by conditioning its aid on significant human rights improvements. Stated simply, the U.S. must practice what it preaches!

FREE BIRTUKAN MIDEKSSA AND ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS IN ETHIOPIA.

[1] http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/61799

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/the-democracy-before-demo_b_434992.html

[3] http://ethiomedia.com/carepress/yared_testimony.pdf

See also the list of names of massacred victims released by the official Inquiry Commission investigating the
post-2005 election at: http://www.abbaymedia.com/pdf/list_of_people_shot.pdf

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