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Ethiopia After Meles: The Future of Democracy and human Rights

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, last week, the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, which I chair, held a hearing that examined the human rights and governance situation in Ethiopia, and the status of U.S. relations with Ethiopia. Given Ethiopia's important cooperation in opposing Islamic militants in Somalia, as well as its cooperation in other counter-terrorism and peacekeeping efforts, the administration has been reluctant to seriously hold the Ethiopian government to account for persistent, egregious human rights violations, including the inability of the opposition political parties to function, restrictions on civil society organizations and journalists that prevent them from operating freely and forced removals of citizens from their lands.

According to the USAID's Assistant Administrator for Africa Earl Gast, ``USAID believes that open channels of communication with the Ethiopian government create opportunities to influence democracy, rights, and governance issues.'' However, Amnesty International testified last week that ``[s]ince 2005 the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated still further, with significantly increased restrictions placed on freedom of expression, association and other rights. Sadly the Ethiopian authorities have not acted in a vacuum during this period. The United States and others in the international community have failed to raise concerns over the government's systematic violation of human rights and flouting of its international obligations. The failure to speak out and press for change has emboldened the government and also allowed Ethiopia to set a dangerous example for other governments in the region to emulate. It is critical that the United States and other members of the international community press the Ethiopian authorities to address human rights concerns and repeal and reform key legislation and policies.''

Amnesty International also noted in its testimony today that ``[f]or Ethiopians held in detention, conditions continue to be extremely harsh. Torture is regularly reported to take place during interrogation in the initial stages of detention, often before the detainees have access to their families or to legal representatives. Prisoners have been slapped, suspended from the walls and ceiling by their wrists, beaten with various objects, denied sleep, electrocuted, and had weights suspended from their genitalia. Solitary confinement for extended periods is often reported. Within prison facilities, sanitation was often reported to be poor. Amnesty International has received reports of medical resources being withheld, and reports of deaths in custody. Food and water is often in short supply, and is supplemented by visiting family members where access is permitted.''

Ethiopia is Africa's second most populous country, after Nigeria, and the United States considers its government to be an important development and regional security partner. Ethiopia plays a key leadership role in the region, hosts the African Union (AU) headquarters, and is a major troop contributor to U.N. peacekeeping operations.

According to the State Department, the three pillars of the bilateral relationship with Ethiopia are economic growth and development; democracy, governance, and human rights; and regional peace and security. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Karen Hanrahan stated in an October 2012 speech that ``advancing democracy and human rights is one of our highest priorities in our engagement with Ethiopia.'' Nevertheless, it has been difficult to get cooperation from the current and previous administrations in confronting the

Government of Ethiopia on its shortcomings in observing democratic principles and human rights in that country.

In June 2005, following a contentious election in which then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his party seemed to suffer unexpected losses in the legislature, demonstrators, led by college students, took to the streets to protest a delayed release of election results. The government's reaction was to deploy snipers who shot and killed protesters and to jail hundreds of others. An increasingly violent response to protests took place in November of that year. The death toll resulting from both protests was 193, but the numbers arrested has never been confirmed.

In the summer of 2005, I travelled to Ethiopia to assess the situation and met with Prime Minister Meles, members of his government, political opposition leaders, including one of our witnesses today--Berhanu Nega--civil society representatives, the religious community and the diplomatic community. What I found was a government leader who was arrogant in his certainty that he could arrest his political opposition whenever he wanted. I also found a political opposition convinced that they had won a majority in the legislative elections that year.

Unfortunately, the government's view won the day. Mr. Nega and other political leaders and human rights officials were arrested and held in jail for more than a year on charges that had to continually be changed due to the repeated failure to convict them. Some of them who managed to be released from jail, found themselves forced to live outside their home country, such as Mr. Nega.

The political space for opposition parties continues to be constricted. The imprisonment and prosecution of political leaders has dissolved parties and caused reformulations that also weren't able to continue. Mr. Nega founded Ginbot 7, a new political party in Ethiopia, but two years ago, it was declared a terrorist organization by the Meles government, and not only was it unable to operate openly, but Ethiopian journalists were prevented from reporting on the party or its statements.

Similarly, the Government of Ethiopia, according to the State Department's human rights report, continued to imprison more than 400 opposition leaders, activists, and local journalists by the end of 2012, many on vague national security-related charges.

As of 2011, the Ethiopian government had completed long-term cheap land leases on more than 3.6 million hectares (equivalent to the size of the Netherlands), mainly to large-scale foreign agricultural investors, and an additional 2.1 million hectares of land has since been made available for such leases to foreigners. An estimated 1.5 million Ethiopians in four regions have been displaced, many of them subject to a supposedly voluntary program known as ``villagization.'' Others displaced due to these land leases or because of major dam projects now reside in refugee camps in Kenya.

Despite an unacceptable political and human rights environment in Ethiopia, we hold out hope that the post-Meles government may yet change the direction the government has taken for so long. Earlier this month, thousands of Ethiopians protested political repression in the capital city of Addis Ababa. Under the late Prime Minister Meles, such a show of defiance likely would have been met with official violence and mass arrests, but the government of current Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn did not react in that way. This is an encouraging sign that the current Ethiopian government may consider changing its course and allowing its citizens to effectively express themselves--including at the ballot box.

Our witnesses last week included the former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, the U.S. official in charge of our significant aid portfolio to Ethiopia, the former elected mayor of Addis Ababa, a member of the first U.S. delegation to meet with the current government and a longtime Ethiopian activist on human rights issues.

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