Professor of political science, CSU San Bernardino
Note: This is the third 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 while some credit is due to the Obama Administration for rhetorically promoting human rights throughout the world giving hope to millions suffering under tyranny and dictatorships, lack of follow up action could transform that hope into despair and anti-Americanism. I further suggest that the U.S. needs to take actions to improve human rights in Ethiopia or risk moral condemnation for prolonging and sustaining the rule of a criminal dictatorship.
The Human Rights Ledger of the Obama Administration
President Obama has been sharply criticized for his “inability” to deliver on his human rights “promises.” Some say his support for the cause of human rights and those struggling against oppression has been rhetorical, and lukewarm at that. He has been unable to translate lofty words into concrete actions to improve human rights. They say his basic approach is flawed because he is trying to reform and rehabilitate nasty dictators into wholesome democrats. A few have suggested that in the post-9/11 world, President Obama has made it his mission “to atone for America’s sins” instead of re-asserting a strong leadership role for the U.S., particularly in the area of human rights. He has been charged with “hypocrisy” for not speaking out against China, Hosni Mubark’s three-decade rule of Egypt under a state of emergency, the fizzling of human rights activism in Iran following the elections last year and the military coup in Honduras. His critics say that he has gone out of his way to accommodate the bloodthirsty Burmese military dictators despite the fact that the democratically elected leader of that country, Aung San Su Kii, has remained in detention for two decades. The vast majority of Ethiopians are disappointed in President Obama’s silence over the unjust imprisonment of Birtukan Midekssa, the first woman political party leader in Ethiopian history, and arguably the most important political prisoner on the African continent today.
Although President Obama and his administration could have done a lot more in the field of global human rights, I am not inclined to join the ranks of his critics and blame him for everything that has gone wrong in human rights worldwide during his eighteen months as president for two reasons. First, his administration has been weighted down by a domestic agenda of epic proportions and distracted by a variety of policy crises of unprecedented severity. Moreover, he had to manage two major ground wars and the global war on terror. Second, I do not expect decades of official neglect of human rights to be addressed in a span of eighteen months. Rather, I am inclined to telescope his overall involvement in the human rights field and make some inferences on his potential to make a great “human rights president” in his first term. I find some encouraging evidence that he could play an extraordinary role in global human rights.
Few would argue the fact that over the past eighteen months, President Obama has restored considerable credibility to U.S. global human rights leadership following gross abuses of human rights in Iraq. He banned the use of torture (or “enhanced interrogation techniques”) immediately after taking office. His speeches and public statements in Ghana, Egypt and Turkey and other places promoting human rights and accountability have given hope to millions. His Administration has fully supported the work and activities of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and even Kenya where the prosecutor acting on his own initiative for the first time is investigating that country’s 2007 post-election violence. (A similar ICC investigation into the massacres of hundreds of people in Ethiopia after the 2005 elections is overdue and fully warranted.) In a symbolic but unprecedented act, President Obama in a special White House ceremony honored women human rights activists from Zimbabwe by awarding them the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for their struggle against the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. He has thrust human rights as a central part of the debate on U.S. policy around the world. These facts in my view are significant in light of his predecessor’s ritualistic obsession with elections regardless of whether they were rigged or stolen. As Secretary Clinton’s recent human rights speeches demonstrate, the Obama administration is emphatic on the issues of free expression, free press, clean elections and civil society. Overall, the evidence from diverse opinion surveys worldwide suggest that that in numerous countries opinions about the United States are about as positive today as they were before 9/11, principally because of the emphasis on human rights.
I am also mindful of Senator Obama’s successful sponsorship of the “Democratic Republic of Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act” in 2006. That Act aims to help promote and reinvigorate the political process in the Congo and meet the basic needs of Congolese citizens and targets the elimination of sexual violence against women and children. I recall the fact that Senator Obama would have fully supported H.R. 2003 (Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act) had it been brought for a vote on the Senate floor following its passage in the House of Representatives in 2007. On a personal level, I have confidence in Mr. Obama that he will stand up for human rights not because he is president but because he is first and foremost a constitutional lawyer. Challenging those who abuse power, flout the rule of law, sneer at justice and thumb their noses at due process is encoded in the DNA of every genuine American constitutional lawyer. None of the foregoing should be viewed as an “apology” for any failures on the part of President Obama or his administration. I will not hesitate to challenge the Administration’s human rights policy in Ethiopia (or elsewhere) as I have done in these series of commentaries.
The Insanity of Doing Nothing
It was Albert Eisnsten who said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It could equally be said of U.S. human rights policy in Ethiopia over the past decade that doing NOTHING over and over again and expecting results is insanity, sheer madness. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. for all of the billions it has given to the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi over the past two decades has been unable to curb his gross human rights violations. Indeed, the U.S. has shied away from strong and sustained criticism of Zenawi’s dismal human rights record. The Obama Administration must realize, if it has not already, that the current status quo – rigged and stolen elections, warehousing of large numbers of political prisoners, intimidation of opposition parties and leaders, decimation of the independent press, the climate of fear and loathing for the citizenry, denial of expressive freedoms, enactment of repressive anti-civil society laws, jamming of Voice of America broadcasts, provocative accusations of the U.S. Government as the soul mates of the genocidal thugs of Rwanda’s interhamwe — cannot and must not go on so long as American tax dollars are being used to bankroll Zenawi’s dictatorship. It should also be crystal clear to the Obama Administration that quiet diplomacy, soft-pedaling on human rights and attaching human rights as an afterthought to negotiations on counterterrorism, security, etc., will not work. The status quo will be damaging both to U.S. strategic interests in Ethiopia and the Horn and undermine the democratic development of Ethiopia.
The dilemma that President Obama is facing today over human rights in Africa is the same one that his predecessors have faced over the decades. The U.S. has never really developed an African policy that tethered human rights, security, trade and governance issues. Historically, U.S. policy in Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular has been haphazard and episodic dominated by a concern with the role of colonial powers, containment of communism, and now defeating global terrorism. “Realpolitik” has always trumped Wilsonianism. It was President Woodrow Wilson who during and after WWI undertook the mission “to make the world safe for democracy”. He believed international peace and America’s pre-eminent role in the world could be secured by promoting democracy and human rights and spreading the virtues of individual freedom, limited government, and popular sovereignty.
The Cold War threw cold water on Wilsonianism after WW II as the struggle to contain totalitarian communism became the core ideology in U.S. foreign policy. It was the Carter Administration that gave human rights a real boost by emphasizing democracy and human rights as practical objectives of U.S. foreign policy. Not unlike President Obama, President Carter raised the hopes of millions around the world. President Carter followed up with action imposing export and import restrictions on South Africa , Ethiopia, and Uganda and by linking economic and military aid to human rights violations. But “realpolitik” caught up with him quickly and the specter of communist insurrections forced him to negotiate for military bases in Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan despite the poor human rights records of the ruling regimes. The Reagan Administration showed interest in human rights at the cusp of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it was the administration of the senior George H. Bush that elevated the human rights rhetoric to new heights by unapologetically declaring that the world was not divided along an east-west axis but “between those committed to democracy and liberty and those against.” President Bill Clinton dubbed Africa’s dictators “new breed” of African leaders and built his “strategic initiative in Africa” so that Africans could serve as U.S. military proxies while using development aid and the international lending institutions to promote democratization.
President Obama is facing the same dilemma his predecessors have faced. His challenge now is to develop an effective strategy to transition his moral advocacy of human rights to practical application of human rights principles in U.S. foreign policy. If he fails to make the transition, he will be criticized for dashing the hopes of millions around the world and judged harshly by history for perpetuating American “hypocrisy” and spreading cynicism and despair.
Walking the Human Rights Talk: Accountability
It is high time for the U.S. to begin walking its human rights talk in Ethiopia. No doubt, striking the right balance between human rights concerns and “pragmatic” strategic interests will be no easy task. For the past decade, the U.S. has thrown human rights in Ethiopia under the bus in its pursuit of the global war on terror. Despite gruesome revelations of gross human rights abuses in Ethiopia by the official U.S. global human rights watchdog, the U.S. has consistently dismissed, ignored, disingenuously deferred, or promised action which never came to pass. It is time for the U.S. to fish or cut bait in Ethiopia.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in her recent speech in Poland said there are four elements to the Obama Administration’s approach to “putting our principles into action” in American global human rights policy. The first pillar is accountability, which means “governments [must] 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.” Over the past decade, the U.S. has shown an almost pathological and reflexive aversion to the very idea of holding dictator Zenawi accountable. When Zenawi came out and declared that he had won the May 2010 election by 99.6 percent, the White House put out a statement bleating, “We are concerned that international observers found that the elections fell short of international commitments [and ] U.S. Embassy officials were denied accreditation and the opportunity to travel outside of the capital on Election Day to observe the voting.” Over the past five years, the U.S. has soft-pedaled gross violations of human rights. When Zenawi slaughtered hundreds of protesters following the 2005 elections, the U.S. made the mind-numbing statement: “The deaths as a result of the actions surrounding these protests are senseless. The United States calls upon both side to engage in a peaceful dialogue.” When Zenawi jailed tens of thousands of people that same year, the U.S. said, “We urge the government to respect the rule of law, international principles of human rights, and due process with regard to those arrested or detained.” This is not “accountability.” It is pusillanimity.
Accountability means holding someone responsible for their acts or omissions against a clear standard. Someone must be held accountable for the deaths and severe injuries of hundreds of peaceful protesters in 2005, the massacre of hundreds of Anuak people in Gambella in 2004 and the untold deaths and destruction in the Ogaden. The Obama administration must take the same moral leadership in Ethiopia that it has taken in Kenya by supporting the International Criminal Court investigations in Kenya for the deaths that occurred in the post-2007 election period and the genocide in Darfur. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If ICC action is good enough for Kenya and the Sudan, I say it is good enough for Ethiopia.
By Secretary Clinton’s own words, accountability applies not only to the tin pot dictators of the world but also the U.S. That is why Ethiopians in the U.S. must hold the Obama Administration itself accountable under Section 116.75 (a) of the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. That provision plainly states:
No assistance may be provided under this part to the government of any country which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture or cruel, inhuman, or de-grading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person, unless such assistance will directly benefit the needy people in such country.
Similarly, Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1976 mandates:
[E]xcept under extraordinary circumstances no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, including torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons or other flagrant denials of the right to life, liberty, and the security of the person.
Is there a country that cries out more for the rigorous application of these provisions than Ethiopia?
Walk the Human Rights Talk Softly and Carry a Big Stick
President Obama has raised the hopes and democratic aspirations of millions around the world. He will have to give human rights the importance it deserves in U.S. foreign policy. Whether in Ethiopia or elsewhere, the issue of human rights could not be left to some embassy functionary who juggles other duties. Human rights should be given the same attention and importance given to counterterrorism, security, development and trade with African dictatorships. It must not be a side issue or an afterthought to other policies. President Obama in his speeches has awakened the world’s oppressed masses; and they fully expect that he will stand up with them and not those who oppress them. In Africa, he has a clear choice: Africa’s tin pot dictators bound for the dustbin of history or Africa’s youth. In his own words, “it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa’s future. Above all, it will be the young people – brimming with talent and energy and hope.” I am hopeful that the Obama administration will use creative approaches to put American “human rights principles into action” in the foreseeable future.