By HERB JACKSON, newjersey.com
A Central Jersey congressman defended himself from sometimes harsh questioning at the National Press Club on Monday about his bill to hold
the government of Ethiopia Woyanne accountable for a brutal crackdown on people protesting election fraud in 2005.
“There are other means of crowd control that don’t include shooting people in the head,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-Robbinsville, told one questioner who said demonstrators had killed nine police officers. An independent review by the Ethiopian Parliament last year said security forces had fatally beaten, strangled and shot 193 protesters.
“You can’t have people languishing in prison whose only crime was winning an election,” Smith told another questioner who said Ethiopia was a democracy that needed to be supported instead of criticized.
Statements like those have earned Smith a huge following in Ethiopia, said Mesfin Mekonen, a press club restaurant manager and member of the [defunct] international council of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy in Ethiopia (Keysi).
Mekonen had lobbied the club’s newsmakers committee to invite Smith and nervously read a statement of welcome that concluded: “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s better known in Ethiopia than in America.”
That’s not uncommon for Smith, the dean of New Jersey’s delegation who has spent nearly 27 years in Congress fighting, often with members of his own Republican Party, to keep the rights of victims of oppressive regimes in the spotlight.
“Human rights is not a burning question in Washington these days, and I believe it ought to be,” Smith said. “For the majority of members of Congress, there’s a learning curve about what’s happening in Ethiopia.”
Smith said he wrote a draft of the Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Advancement Act on a plane after meeting in Ethiopia with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2005. He was outraged that Meles declared he had files showing all the protesters killed were guilty of treason and there was no need for an investigation.
“No trial, not even a kangaroo trial,” Smith said.
The bill would condition United States military and economic assistance — but not humanitarian relief, such as food and medicine — on Ethiopia’s meeting what Smith describes as very modest human rights benchmarks. The bill also gives the president broad leeway to disregard the bill’s requirements if it is in the national interest, Smith said.
Smith was able last year to get the bill through the House International Relations Committee, where he chaired the Africa subcommittee. But the bill went no further, and Smith suspects the reason why was that former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, had been hired as a lobbyist for the Ethiopian government.
After Democrats took control of Congress in January, the subcommittee chairmanship was taken over by a fellow New Jerseyan, Rep. Donald Payne, D-Newark. Though the Ethiopian government had added former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., to their lobbying team, Smith and Payne had better luck and the bill was approved by a unanimous voice vote earlier this month.
But that may be as far as it goes, Smith said. Individual senators have the power to place “holds” on legislation that are rarely overturned, and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., has criticized the bill because it “focuses only on shortcomings and blatantly ignores the unprecedented progress the country has made.”
Critics have urged Congress not to criticize the Ethiopian government because it is one of the few nations in the region where Islamic terrorism is not growing, but Smith said the United States should be able to put conditions on the aid it gives other countries.
“No regime that terrorizes its citizens can be a reliable ally in the war on terror,” Smith said. “Ethiopia’s a great country. It deserves better, frankly, than the government they have.”
Herb Jackson can be reached at [email protected]