Is the House Resolution 128 (HR. 128) bad for the new Ethiopian Prime Minister?

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Maganasa Oda

April 16, 2018

On April 10, 2018, the much-awaited House Resolution 128 (HR. 128), passed the US Congress with no objections. The Resolution which condones “(1) the killing of peaceful protesters and excessive use of force by Ethiopian security forces; (2) the detention of journalists, students, activists and political leaders who exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and expression through peaceful protests; and (3) the abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle political and civil dissent and journalistic freedoms” became the battleground for pro Ethiopian government and those who want a real reform in the country. In summary, the resolution calls for “lifting of the state of emergency; ending the use of excessive force by security forces; investigating the killings and excessive use of force that took place as a result of protests in the Oromia and Amhara regions; releasing dissidents, activists, and journalists who have been imprisoned for exercising constitutional rights;…” The resolution also calls on the government “to repeal proclamations that can be used to harass or prohibit funding for organizations that investigate human rights violations, engage in peaceful political dissent, or advocate for greater political freedoms; prohibit those displaced from their land from seeking judicial redress; permit the detention of peaceful protesters and political opponents who legally exercise their rights to freedom of expression and association; and limit peaceful nonprofit operations in Ethiopia.” The resolution also urges: “(1) protesters in Ethiopia to refrain from violence and from encouragement or acceptance of violence in demonstrations, and (2) all armed factions to cease their conflict with the Ethiopian government and engage in peaceful negotiations.”

Some of the members of the House made impassioned arguments regarding why the resolution is necessary for Ethiopians/Oromians and for improving relations between Ethiopia and the United States. In navigating the issue of the strategic importance of Ethiopia to the United States and injustice in the country, Representative Erik Paulson from Minnesota said: “There is no doubt Ethiopia is a very important US ally, but that does not mean we should turn a blind eye when it oppresses its people.” Representative Keith Ellison, also from Minnesota, added: “Even allies must be held accountable when they violate the human rights of their people. Status as an ally is not a license to abuse human rights.” This is a clear message that no one would dare to sweep under the rug. For many years to come, these are the voices that Human Rights groups play time and again to show the challenges that Ethiopians face under the leadership of EPRDF. The US Congress, on the floor, condemned the brutality of the Ethiopian regime. The American people spoke loudly saying yes you are our ally, but you must respect the rights of your citizens.

In the past three years, thousands of protesters were killed. Millions displaced. Tens of thousands were arrested without due process. This resolution was in part honoring the protesters who demanded change in the face of brutality.

The win for diaspora

The diaspora groups have been pushed aside for the past, at least, ten years. This is particularly true since the 2005 elections when the diaspora was behind financing the coalition for unity and democracy (CUD), as an opposition group. The diaspora has also been characterized as a divided group without common cause. Nevertheless, that has not stopped the majority of the Ethiopian/Oromo diaspora from lobbying the international community and the US Congress in solidarity for this resolution.

In his inaugural speech, the new prime minister has called on the diaspora community to engage in their countries policy and other important matters. He said:” For the Ethiopian diaspora, our government will continue with unreserved efforts to facilitate your active participation in your country’s affairs and its transformation in any way you can.”  If this is a serious call, it is imperative that the Ethiopian government take the initiative to organize a platform where this group can express its concerns and also contribute to the country. However, while arresting and abusing their family members and fellow citizens back home, a call for the diaspora to be part of a reform does not seem a genuine call.

The New PM

Many human rights organizations, governments and activists already acknowledge that the new prime minister is a reform-minded person.  At the same time, it has been widely reported that the most formidable challenge for the new prime minister is the security sector- a sector that has been at the forefront of many reports of deaths, arrests, torture and so much more abusive behaviors. The army and the intelligence sector, many believe, may continue business as usual as they don’t respect the new prime minister or take orders from him. Some even go to the extent that should the new prime minister seek to reform the army and the intelligence sector, he would be eliminated. It is within this context that the resolution has to be viewed.

The resolution, it actually boosts the power of the new prime minister. The speeches of the new prime minister, his inaugural as well as the follow-ups, focus on reforming the country. The resolution which does not target the Prime Minister also calls for similar output. By no means, the resolution is devised to tie the hands of the new prime minister. For someone who has ascended to power in a situation where many believe that the army and the intelligence sectors don’t take order their new PM, a resolution like HR.128   serves as a leverage for the new prime minister in his attempt to reform the sectors. It has to be underlined that if these calls are not met with tangible responses by the Ethiopian government, serious actions would follow: activating US Treasury provisions for the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act could be activated by the US Treasury Department. What does that mean and how does that affect those who are responsible for violations of human rights? First, the designation of individuals will continue, then, “All of the property and interests in property within U.S. jurisdiction of the designated individuals and entities are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them. Persons whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to the Executive Order are considered to have an interest in all property and interests in property of an entity in which such blocked persons own, whether individually or in the aggregate, directly or indirectly, a 50 percent or greater interest. Consequently, any entity owned in the aggregate, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons is itself considered to be a blocked person.” These are serious punishments that EPRDF officials who are implicated in the abuses cannot afford. This is a leverage that the new prime minister has gotten from the US Congress. Other countries must follow the same route.

Conclusion

The resolution’s first draft was introduced in 2016.  Its main purpose is to help foster a dialogue in the country. It calls for respect for human rights in the country. Its aim is to help create an environment where impunity cannot be tolerated anymore. In Ethiopia, the security forces have been acting with absolute impunity. They kill at will. They torture at will. They arrest without dues process. They displace people in millions. And those who protest these acts face the same fate. The security forces, which are considered very powerful and another wing of the TPLF, have done so much injustice to the Ethiopian people, particularly in Oromia. They are out of control of the civilian government, and this has been the case since the death of prime minister Meles Zenawi.

It was because of this situation that activists and friends of the Ethiopian people, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Oakland Institute and other Ethiopian and international organizations have worked tirelessly for more than two years to push for this resolution. This resolution, by no means, is intended to undercut the new reform-minded Prime Minister. It is rather to cement his power and the will of the people who have been demanding reform in the country for decades. Those who are arguing otherwise, have either not read the resolution or are against democratic reform in Ethiopia. How on earth can a resolution that calls for respect for human rights, democracy, justice, and rule of law can be a bad idea? How can a group or a government that supposedly believes in those values argue against such a resolution?

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