Thursday, October 05, 2006

"Friends Don't Let Friends Commit Human Rights Abuses"

By Fikru Helebo

The above were the words of Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), sponsor of HR 5680, during his fact-finding trip to Ethiopia in August of 2005 when he was asked by IRIN news service about what his message to the political leaders of the Unites States will be upon his return to the US. I am sure Rep. Smith communicated his message to those US officials he had the opportunity to brief about what he observed in Ethiopia. Rep. Smith met Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian dictator, on this trip and told him to "...ease up on the opposition. Stop following them, stop intimidating individuals who are supporters [of the opposition]." Obviously, his advise was not heeded by Meles. That was expected of him! He has killed and terrorized many times before to get to where he is. What was not expected was the response of US officials to Mr. Smith's advise. Unfortunately, US political leaders who were in a position to exert pressure on Meles failed to do so, and as a result, Meles got emboldened and repeated the massacre of June 2005 in November 2005, only on a much bigger scale, thus bringing the nascent democratic process in Ethiopia to a screeching halt!

If Condolezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, and her assistant for Africa, Jendayi Fraser, were asked today "What did they do to pressure Meles to be civilized and compromise with the opposition between August and November 2005?", it is very likely that they would answer the question in a diplomatic language, such as: "the United States Government did everything possible to put pressure to bear on the Ethiopian Government." I am not trying to pick on Rice and Fraser, but they have miserably failed Ethiopians in their time of need. To be fair to them, however, there are other players in the US government, such as the Pentagon and the US intelligence service communities, who have a say in what US foreign policy towards Ethiopia is and, therefore, officials in those other government departments are also equally to blame for the failure US policy.

Judging from the muted reaction of the US government to the massacre of November 2005, it is reasonable to conclude that US government officials who were/are responsible for making policy on Ethiopia were asleep at the wheel and failed to make an effective use of United States' political and economic leverage on the Ethiopian Government so that it respects the fundamental right of the Ethiopian people to protest the outcome of the May 2005 elections in peaceful ways, including boycotts and demonstrations. This muted US reaction may seem a mystery right now, but it won't be a mystery forever, and why US policy makers failed to make a difference in Ethiopia in the post-May 2005 election era will become apparent in due time, perhaps some time after a new adminstration takes office.

This is not the first time US officials have bungled American policy towards Ethiopia. In another tumultuous time in Ethiopian history, as these recently declassified notes of US officials from the Nixon and Ford administration officials testify, US officials were consistently farther behind events in Ethiopia to adequetely effect changes in Ethiopia, both for the benefit of the Ethiopian people who were neglected by their own government, which was considered a solid US ally at the time, and for the sake of US interests in the Horn of Africa region. I would not be surprised if 30 years or so from now, when the notes of the current US officials are declassified, we will know for sure that they failed to grasp the level of discontent among Ethiopians of the Meles regime and turned a blind eye as a dictator, whom they think is a friend of the US, commit horrific human right abuses right under their noses, kill the aspirations of millions of Ethiopians and thereby undermine United States' long term interests in the region.

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