By Alemayehu G. Mariam
From Discontent to Renewal
In the Winter of our discontent, we complained about the wasted years of antagonism, discord and strife among pro-democracy elements of the Ethiopian Diaspora. We deplored the years of infighting and useless bickering which had given much delight and merriment to the ruthless dictators. We expressed collective regret over our shortsightedness and inability to see the big picture, and to work collaboratively for the great cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in the motherland. We chafed about lost opportunities to become effective instruments for the protection of human rights in Ethiopia. We found ourselves gripped by a pervasive sense of powerlessness and political paralysis. Then we had our “Aha!” moment, that moment ringing with the “fierce urgency of now”. We we declared, “We must learn from past mistakes, overcome our differences and march forward together to the exhilarating drumbeat of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia.”
We are now in our Spring of hope and renewal. Our hope comes from a new sense of unbridled optimism guided by the principle that Ethiopians united can never be defeated. Our renewal comes in the form of a new consciousness: 1) that we can do things much better than before and differently, and by harnessing our resources worldwide, we can effectively promote the cause of freedom, human rights and democracy in Ethiopia; 2) by remaining divided and fragmented, we would be effectively aiding and abetting in the continuing criminal enterprise of the ruthless dictators. This Spring, for many pro-democracy Ethiopians throughout the world, is a time for a new commitment to the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. The seeds of goodwill planted in dialogue and consultation in the Winter are now sprouting as seedlings of collaborative action, cooperation and worldwide consolidation in the struggle for the protection of human rights in Ethiopia. This Spring, pro-democracy Ethiopians can be heard all over the world saying, “Enough talk. Shake hands. Let’s get busy!”
Fired Up and Ready to Rumble!
We are fired up and ready to rumble! Everywhere we turn, we find an overwhelming consensus among pro-democracy Ethiopians that building respect for human rights and the rule of law will help ensure the dignity to which every Ethiopian is entitled, and stem the arbitrary powers of dictators, reduce intolerance and political violence. Validation of this truth comes from all sectors. The refugees who fled the persecution of the ruling dictators in Ethiopia testify to it. Former political prisoners, dissidents, exiled journalists, human rights advocates and all who believe in democracy, freedom and the rule of law say in a single voice that it is time to act. The victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity call upon us in exile to champion their cause and alleviate their suffering.
Spring Into Action
Ethiopians in exile are excited about the prospect of working together to help alleviate human rights violations in Ethiopia. There is unquestionably massive consensus among pro-democracy Ethiopian exiles to forge a common human rights agenda. But there are issues that bear directly upon the practical formulation and implementation of such an agenda. We are wrestling with two such issues now: 1) determining the most effective method to bring together divergent elements in the worldwide Ethiopian exile community to work and act together in common cause, and 2) identifying a set of actions and outcomes that can be taken to produce tangible and quantifiable results in improving the human rights situation in Ethiopia. These two questions require careful and thoughtful consideration.
Bringing together groups and individuals that have often been at odds with each other, or have not worked together much in the past is not an easy task. Harmonizing different organizational styles and practices requires careful balancing. But we believe we have made significant strides in seating diverse Ethiopian pro-democracy elements at the grand table of human rights dialogue and consultations. We are making good progress in our coalition-building efforts and in beginning to develop a comprehensive strategy to achieve the multiple purposes of advocacy, education, mobilization and action in support of Ethiopian human rights issues. We are going through a natural period of “acclimatization” learning about each other and our unique organizational styles and methods. But we do our best to practice what we preach. Our dialogues are open, civil and intellectually engaging. Our communications are transparent, and all input from participants are integrated in our deliberations. We build upon each other’s strengths.
Identifying a set of advocacy issues and developing an action plan for implementation of a human rights agenda presents its own challenges. We have a sense of our unique assets and resources which can be used to achieve our purposes. We are acutely aware that our issues can be paired with some extraordinary opportunities that were not available to us in the past. For instance, in the U.S. context, the change in administration offers fresh opportunities to revisit the issue of human rights in Ethiopia. We believe the blank check given to the dictators during the Bush era is likely to be a thing of the past. We also believe the continuing, sustained and flagrant human rights violations will figure prominently on the Congressional radar screen. We hope to harness our energies and resources and employ different strategies to advance the cause of human rights in Ethiopia.
There is no question pro-democracy Ethiopians in exile are fired up and ready to act on improving human rights in Ethiopia. The action items are self evident: 1) Human Rights Monitoring: We must work to ensure the regime conforms its conduct to the standards of international human rights conventions which are part of the constitutional law of the regime. Such efforts span a wide variety of activities ranging from factual investigation to documentation and reporting. 2) Advocacy: We must develop a multi-pronged approach to advocacy. There is consensus that advocacy at the highest levels of international policymaking should be a priority. We are also aware of the importance of utilizing resources at the local levels in seeking policy changes at the national level. 3) Release of All Ethiopian Political Prisoners: Recent official reports indicate that a large number of political prisoners continue to languish in the ruling regime’s prisons. Impressive public demonstrations have been held recently to call international attention to the plight of political prisoners in Ethiopia. Additional steps can certainly be taken to champion the cause of Ethiopian political prisoners. 4) Accountability: There is substantial evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ethiopia. In the past year alone, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published reports documenting such violations of international law. There is also evidence in the form of a certified list of criminal suspects in the post-election massacres in 2005.
There are other related issues which are integral to the success of the foregoing tasks. There is a critical need for human rights education and awareness in the Ethiopian exile community worldwide. One of the reasons why international human rights advocates speak on our behalf has to do with our lack of knowledge and expertise to speak for ourselves on important human rights issues. There is also a need to engage “silently concerned” exiled Ethiopians in the global human rights effort. This requires developing a clear and convincing message and creating practical ways of participation and engagement by such individuals. Increased awareness and access to accurate information on human rights is one of the best methods of mobilizing those who remain marginalized.
We Can Move Mountains!
From our efforts in supporting H.R. 2003 and predecessor bills, we have learned that a well coordinated advocacy campaign can produce significant results in terms of generating wide support for human rights in Ethiopia. The power of advocacy, we believe, lies in the simplicity and purity of the advocacy mission, the passion and commitment of the advocates and supporters and the clarity of vision about the task ahead. We believe in empowering every Ethiopian to become a human rights advocate, and to feel emboldened to take action even when confronted with seemingly impossible obstacles.
We expect bumps in the road. Despite good intentions, grassroots advocacy campaigns will hit snags from time to time. Sometimes efforts may be disjointed and progress may not be visible in linear fashion. But such is the nature of grassroots advocacy. The alternative is to hire the fat cat lobbyists of “K” Street in Washington, D.C. and feed them a princely sum of $50,000 per month. As we have seen, even fat cat lobbyists can be defeated and routed from the legislative battlefield by a disciplined and tenacious army of fleas. We are fired up and ready to rumble! We can move mountains!