Alemayehu G. Mariam
Human Rights and Fairy Tales
For the past several weeks, the noise machine of the dictatorship in Ethiopia has been in overdrive reacting to human rights findings made against it in the February 29, 2009 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report. The official spokesmen of the dictatorship angrily denounced the alleged inaccuracies in that report, carped about its groundless charges of criminal wrongdoing, whined about the hidden agendas of shadowy manipulators of U.S. foreign policy, groused about the fictitious and fanciful claims of human rights abuses and blasted the American government for lying outright to undermine their credibility and portray them as international pariahs. Even the leader of the dictatorship took a jab at the report. With simulated dramatic flair, he described the report as a “fairy tale” (te-ret) and “false propaganda” to his parliament. As usual, he categorically denied the occurrence of any systematic human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, mass detentions without charges and the commission of crimes against humanity by himself, his official minions or security and military forces.
Of course, one man’s fairy tale is another man’s tale of fear. Dr. Merera Gudina, chairman of the Oromo People’s Congress and the United Ethiopian Democratic Forces was quick to disagree, as quoted by the gazette Addis Negger:
I see it as one of the government’s attempts to conceal its human rights abuses. For example, the government claims that ‘there are no secret prisons in Ethiopia,’ but about 15 kilometers away from Ambo, where I have enough information about, there are three unofficial secret prisons: the old Emperor Haile Selassie’s Palace in Ambo, Senkele Police Training Center and Holeta Military Camp. Dedesa, where many thousands had been locked up after the 2005 elections, is not an official prison. We can provide as much evidence as needed. It is well known that people have been jailed in Maekelawi [the notorious high-security torture prison in Ethiopia] from one month to up-to several years without court warrants. I do not understand who the government is trying to deceive.
Others offered similar assessments about the dictatorship’s brazen and audacious denials of documented and established facts of notorious human rights abuses. The funny thing about the dictatorship’s spasmodic eruption of belated moral outrage against an imaginary cabal of evil international human rights organizations is that they had been ignoring those “fairy tale” reports impassively and scornfully for well over a decade. In their recent counteroffensives, they even stressed the fact that it is not their policy to dignify the “false and propagandistic fairy tales” of the human rights organizations with a response. But now, out of the blue, the dictatorship is squealing like a stuck pig and flailing every which way to respond to the 2009 U.S. State Department Human Rights Report. Why? What has changed so dramatically to cause the dictatorship to sweat it out?
We Know Why They Are Squealing!
The dictators are squealing because the U.S. has quietly and matter-of-factly cut off assistance for military training and equipment to them. That is right! No more American taxpayer dollars to train human rights abusers and criminals; no more American taxpayer dollars for guns, tanks and Humvees to kill innocent Ethiopians. No military partnership with thugs! Many people will no doubt be surprised by this fact, but the law is explicit and its provisions plain and unmistakable.
On March 11, 2009, President Barack Obama signed H.R. 1125, the “Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009”  for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009. H.R. 1105 (Title IV, International Security Assistance, p. 332, fn. 1) prohibits military assistance and training to rogue regimes that engage in gross human rights violations. The relevant legislative language of H.R. 1125 (see fn. 1 below, p. 332) provides,
INTERNATIONAL MILITARY EDUCATION AND TRAINING – For necessary expenses to carry out the provisions of section 541 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961,… Provided further, That funds made available under this heading for assistance for Haiti, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Libya, and Angola may only be provided through the regular notification procedures of the Committees on Appropriations and any such notification shall include a detailed description of proposed activities…
Further, under Title IV of H.R. 1105, “FOREIGN MILITARY FINANCING PROGRAM”, the following prohibition is indicated:
“Provided further, That none of the funds appropriated under this heading may be made available for assistance for Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Haiti, Guatemala, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo except pursuant to the regular notification procedures of the Committees on Appropriations.
H.R. 1105 also forbids reprogramming of any funds made available in prior appropriations (previous years) to provide assistance to these rogue regimes in the current fiscal year. (See fn. 1, pp. 342, 344):
REPROGRAMMING NOTIFICATION REQUIREMENTS SEC. 7015. (f) None of the funds appropriated under titles III through VI of this Act shall be obligated or expended for assistance for Serbia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Iran, Haiti, Libya, Ethiopia, Nepal, Mexico, or Cambodia and countries listed in section 7045(f)(4) of this Act except as provided through the regular notification procedures of the Committees on Appropriations.
H.R. 1105 allows training assistance to non-military personnel “who are not members of a government [and] whose participation would contribute to improved civil-military relations, civilian control of the military, or respect for human rights…”
The foregoing change in U.S. military assistance policy in Ethiopia is an extraordinary transformation in U.S. foreign policy. For the first time in decades, the U.S. government has decided to explicitly link human rights abuses in Ethiopia to its military aid program. Congress, by requiring extraordinary presidential reporting “through the regular notification procedures of the Committees on Appropriations” has expressly denied military assistance to the dictators and limited the discretion of the U.S. President to furnish such assistance under the authority of section 541 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
In plain language, H.R. 1105 cuts off military assistance to the identified rogue regimes, but allows the President to waive the prohibition on a case by case basis in the national interest, provided that he notifies the Appropriations Committees of the House and the Senate (committees responsible for funding the U.S. government) 15 days in advance of his intention to do so, and supplies a “detailed description of proposed activities” justifying the waiver. Even in emergency cases, the President must notify the Appropriations Committees that he has provided military assistance to the rogue regimes “no later than 3 days after taking the action to which such notification requirement was applicable.” In short, H.R. 1105 prohibits funds for military training or equipment to dictatorial regimes that engage in gross and consistent human rights abuses. That is why the dictators in Ethiopia were squealing like a stuck pig over the past few weeks!
Sea Change in American Foreign Policy in Ethiopia
In his inauguration speech, President Obama sent a clear message to the tin pot dictators of the world:
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist. To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.
By denying funds for military training and equipment, the President and the new Congress are standing tall with the “starving people of the poor nations” of the world and against the filthy-rich kleptocratic dictators who oppress them and “cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent.” The message from the Obama administration to the dictators in Ethiopia is crystal clear: “America will not give you a penny to train your soldiers to terrorize your civilian population, nor will it provide your military establishments a single gun, plane, tank or Humvee to kill them.” George Bush’s unholy “alliance with atrocity” is over. No more unconditional and blind support to dictators who abuse and mistreat their people in the name of “promoting U.S. interests.” Bush’s war on terror under Obama will be transformed into a struggle for global peace under the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Admittedly, U.S. military assistance to the dictatorship in Ethiopia has not been very large, although the dictatorship has received the lion’s share of such aid in the past. What is important about the termination of military assistance in H.R. 1105 is not the dollar amount but rather the implicit moral and political condemnation of the dictatorship for its use of American military aid to violate the human rights of innocent Ethiopians and oppress the population. This simple and straightforward legislative action by the Appropriations Committees represents a sea change, a re-direction, of U.S. foreign policy. It is the first shot across the bow warning all tin pot dictators that the U.S. will no longer form or maintain partnerships with thugs and criminals.
The Obama administration obviously understands that future U.S. military operations with rogue regimes could be adversely affected by such a policy, particularly in terms of potential anti-terror or peacekeeping missions. But the Congress and President Obama are making it clear that they are no longer willing to sustain the culture of impunity of these regimes or subordinate fundamental human rights to political expediency by providing dictators with military training and equipment which will inevitably be used to crackdown on internal opposition and wage war against neighboring countries.
The Moral Challenge in Obama’s Foreign Policy
Last week, President Obama gave a stirring speech on the future direction of U.S. foreign policy and how he plans to keep America safe from its sworn enemies:
… I believe with every fiber of my being that in the long run we also cannot keep this country safe unless we enlist the power of our most fundamental values. The documents that we hold in this very hall – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights – are not simply words written into aging parchment. They are the foundation of liberty and justice in this country, and a light that shines for all who seek freedom, fairness, equality and dignity in the world.
In that speech, the President raised American foreign policy from the murky morass of Bush’s cowboy unilaterialsm to the sublime heights of moral clarity grounded in America’s founding principles and values. The President stressed the urgency of restoring a moral perspective in the debates over the challenges of American foreign policy, and the need to return to fundamental American principles and values for guidance. President Obama has witnessed the enormous damage inflicted upon America’s role in the world, and the corruption of American values and principles under the Bush-Cheney administration. The contrived war in Iraq, the unspeakable abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the albatross hanging around America’s neck, the grotesque detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are merely examples of the moral decay America had to endure over the past eight years. That is why the President had to emphatically declare to the world that he believes “with every fiber of his being” in the “rule of law, liberty, justice, equality fairness and the dignity of the individual”. No more of a foreign policy based on a twisted philosophy of the “end justifies the means”.
We anticipate the hollow and deceitful sovereignty arguments raised so often by the dictators in Ethiopia. They say, “no one can tell them how to run their ‘country’ by giving or denying them aid.” But they need to understand that linking military aid, or for that matter economic aid, to explicit human rights criteria is not to violate anyone’s sovereignty. Sovereign American law (Leahy Amendment) requires denial of military aid to any regime whose military units engage in gross abuses of human rights. By denying military aid, the U.S. is merely dissociating itself from the crimes, corruption and atrocities of the dictators in Ethiopia. The U.S. no longer wants to support and foster their culture of impunity that tolerates the burning of villages in the Ogaden to accomplish the ends of “counter-terrorism”, or the massacre of innocent protesters in the streets to help them “cling to power”. Most importantly, the termination of military assistance to rogue regimes is essentially about America itself and its role in the world. Tin pot dictators have the choice of “clinging to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent”; and America has the choice of clinging fiercely and tenaciously to its fundamental principles and values of “liberty, justice, freedom, fairness, equality and dignity in the world.” H.R. 1105 makes that choice for America.
Writing on the Wall: Endgame!
It is reasonable to suppose that the dictators in Ethiopia see the relevant provisions of H.R.1105 as the proverbial writing on the wall, the beginning of the endgame. They never thought in their wildest imaginations that Barack Obama would be elected President. They thought they had it sewed up by donating millions to a certain foundation. They thought they could throw around their millions on K Street lobbyists and stonewall any change in American foreign policy towards them. They thought they were invincible because they could wine and dine witless American politicians to do their dirty deeds. They thought Bush’s “war on terror” will go on forever. They thought they could exploit to their advantage America’s global dilemma over national security and the protection of human rights. They thought American power came from the shrapnel of its bombs, the deadly accuracy of its missiles and the formidable capabilities of its armed forces. But they could never imagine or understand that America’s awesome power lies in the principles and values declared to a “candid world” over two centuries ago in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It is impossible for them to even begin to understand what President Obama means when he says he believes “with every fiber of his being” in the “power of our most fundamental values”. But it is with the aid of these values and principles that President Obama shall seek to restore America’s leadership in the world, and win the hearts and minds of friends and foes alike.
The dictators in Ethiopia have a big problem on their hands. They don’t know what to do with President Obama. They are confused. Most likely, they feel vulnerable and unsure of what will happen next. So, they will try to entice him to support them by re-deploying troops to Somalia to prove once more that the U.S. needs them to fight against al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda and whoever else is hiding behind a rock there. They will try to scare him by threatening to dump America and go to China for their military needs. They will try to sweet-talk him into believing that they will be nice and take steps to be more democratic and stop violating human rights. They will pile lies upon lies in a desperate attempt not to lose American material and moral support.
But all of that will be in vain. President Obama is not George Bush. He can not be schmoozed by silly talk of the birth pangs of a “nascent democracy” and that sort of hogwash. President Obama knows African politics and history well; and he has spoken eloquently of Africa’s tragic predicament: Dictators that “cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent,” human rights abuses, the absence of the rule of law, corruption and repression. One can not overcome these problems by having more guns and tanks or by training soldiers to use them skillfully against innocent citizens. That is why President Obama reached out to all tin pot dictators and promised “that we will extend a hand if [they] are willing to unclench [their] fist”, and offered “to the people of poor nations [that] we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.” America will not give military aid to dictators to kill and oppress their people; but if the dictators “unclench their fists”, it will gladly help them build institutions and civil society organizations committed to deepening democracy, accountability and human rights, and establish “the vital trust between a people and their government.”
Let there be no mistake: President Obama is not naïve. He knows the terrorists and tin pot dictators of the world will not be influenced by pleas for observance of the rule of law, or moral appeals to do what is right. He knows there is no magic formula to transform dictators into democrats. That does not happen even in fairy tales, though it has been said that once in fairyland a frog was transformed into a prince. But there is no fairyland that exists in the imagination where it is possible to change thugs into statesmen. For in the end, U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration will not be about what is wrong with self-delusional tin pot dictators that “cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent.” Rather, it will be about using America’s democratic values and principles to win the hearts and minds of a hostile and skeptical world that has witnessed a great nation degenerate to its lowest level over the past eight years. It will be about how America can get it right, after getting it wrong for so long, in a world that looks anxiously for its moral leadership. It will be a long and hard road ahead, but ultimately America will regain its moral leadership and credibility among the poor people of the world with President Obama at the helm.
America is lucky to have a President who has a moral vision for his nation, openly celebrates “with every fiber of his being” the values and principles upon which his nation is founded, and proudly and cheerfully toils day and night to serve the American people. America is truly blessed to have a leader who knows right from wrong, and swiftly disinherits those “on the wrong side of history”!
The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org