When President Obama visited Accra, Ghana in 2009, he delivered two distinct political messages within one overarching moral imperative: “History is on the side of brave Africans”. His message to African governments and leaders was emphatic:
…Make no mistake: history is on the side of these brave Africans, and not with those who use coups or change Constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions… [G]overnments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful…
His message to the people of Africa was inspiring, upbeat and passionate:
…You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people. You can conquer disease, end conflicts, and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can. Because in this moment, history is on the move.
President Obama also made a solemn promise to Africans:
… What we will do is increase assistance for responsible individuals and institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance – on parliaments, which check abuses of power and ensure that opposition voices are heard; on the rule of law, which ensures the equal administration of justice; on civic participation, so that young people get involved; and on concrete solutions to corruption… to advance transparency and accountability.
Now, at the cusp of the beginning of President Obama’s second term, we have to ask some tough questions: Are there more African strongmen in 2012 than in 2009? Are there fewer brave Africans on the streets and more of them in jail in 2012 than in 2009? Does Africa today have more debilitated institutions than it had in 2009? Do more African governments respect the will of their people today than they did in 2009? Is there less conflict in Africa today than in 2009? Does Africa today have good governance and is the rule of law the rule in Africa? Are more opposition voices heard, more civic participation seen and more youth and women involved in the political process in Africa today than they did in 2009? Does the U.S. today “stand with all those who seek to advance human dignity”? Is history in Africa today on the move forward to democracy, freedom and human rights, or is Africa marching backwards into the darkness of dictatorship and tyranny?
Is the U.S. today standing tall with the brave Africans or in bed with Africa’s strongmen?
Whatever Happened to the Brave Africans President Obama Spoke About in 2009?
According to the U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights Practices Report for 2011 (May 2012), many of the “brave Africans” President Obama spoke about in 2009 are jailed, tortured, silenced, on the run, dead or just scared stiff under relentless official harassment and persecution. Arbitrary arrests, lengthy pretrial detentions, torture, and mistreatment of detainees by security forces, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, illegal searches and seizures and infringements of citizens’ privacy rights, restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press and assembly in one form or another are the common facts of African daily life. African societies and institutions are decimated by official corruption and bloated bureaucracies. Justice is traded to the highest bidder in politically-controlled judiciaries; and rubberstamp parliaments crank out laws and proclamations like a Chinese toy factory. African societies are plagued by discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, language, religion, culture and region.
Among the most flagrant violators of human rights in Africa is the regime in Ethiopia. In May 2010, the ruling party in that country “won” 545 of 547 [99.6 %] seats in parliament. A White House Statement on that election turned a blind eye and voiced muted “concern”:
An environment conducive to free and fair elections was not in place even before Election Day. In recent years, the Ethiopian government has taken steps to restrict political space for the opposition through intimidation and harassment, tighten its control over civil society, and curtail the activities of independent media. We are concerned that these actions have restricted freedom of expression and association…
In a speech given at the National Endowment for Democracy in October 2012, Karen J. Hanrahan, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor characterized the deplorable human rights situation in Ethiopia as merely a “challenge”:
… In Ethiopia, we are faced with a challenge. The principal question is how to work constructively with both the government and civil society to advance democracy and human rights when the government has limited political and civil space. This has included restrictions on civil society organizations, the curtailment of media freedom, and the conviction of journalists and members of the political opposition under the Anti-terrorism Proclamation. We’re particularly concerned about the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-terrorism Proclamation…
The “challenge” Hanrahan talks about includes the arrest of “more than 100 opposition political figures, activists, journalists, and bloggers,” massive suppression of the independent press, virtual bans on civil society and nongovernmental organizations,beatings and torturing of detainees by security forces and poor prison conditions. It also includes the unlawful persecution and imprionsment of the 2012 PEN America Freedom to Write Award winner Eskinder Nega; Reeyot Alemu, the 2012 winner of the International Women’s Media Fund’s Courage in Journalism Award; Woubshet Taye, editor of a popular weekly, opposition party leaders Andualem Aragie and Natnael Mekonnen among many others. The evidence reported in the latest U.S. State Department Human Rights Practices Report on Ethiopia (May 2012) shows that describing the human rights situation in Ethiopia as a “challenge” and glossing it over with a polite expression of “concern” is tantamount to adding insult to injury. The human rights situation in that country should provoke unmitigated moral outrage and immediate and direct action to uphold democratic principles and standards of universal human rights.
Perhaps current U.S. leaders could learn valuable lessons from their predecessors who faced similar “challenges” posed by tyrannies and dictatorships. President Truman once said, “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of the opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” Such is the indisputable fact of life in Ethiopia today and no amount of empty talk about “concerns” and hollow promises about overcoming “challenges” will change the situation!
The U.S. Record in Africa Today Leaves Much to be Desired
According to Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson who heads the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs, there are “five pillars that serve as the foundation of U.S. policy toward Africa.” These include “(1) support for democracy and the strengthening of democratic institutions including free, fair, and transparent elections; (2) support for African economic growth and development; (3) conflict prevention, mitigation, and resolution; (4) support for Presidential initiatives such as the Global Health Initiative, Feed the Future, and the Global Climate Change Initiative and (5) working with African nations on transnational issues such as drug smuggling, money laundering and trafficking in persons.” Carson reported that U.S. policy in Africa “in recent years”
has contributed to democratic transitions in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Niger; successful elections in Nigeria; and a referendum that led to the independence of South Sudan. The Bureau promotes African economic development through the annual Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Forums. It is actively striving to end sexual and gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and eliminate the atrocities perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army throughout Central Africa. Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global food security initiative, is focused on 12 African countries…
In her Preface to the U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights Practices Report for 2011 (May 2012), Secretary Hilary Clinton declared:
In my travels around the world as Secretary of State, I have met many individuals who put their lives on the line to advance the cause of human rights and justice. In ways small and large, they hold their governments accountable for upholding universal human rights… The United States stands with all those who seek to advance human dignity…
These quite modest accomplishments in Africa fall far short of President Obama’s lofty and eloquent words and majestic promises in Accra and his Administration’s actions to support good governance and promote human rights in Africa. Shakespeare said, “Action is eloquence.” Though there is always a gap between political rhetoric and political action, one should not confuse the eloquence of words with the eloquence of action. But this is not the time to look back and engage in recriminations, teeth-gnashing, belly-aching and finger pointing. We shall march to our President’s battle cry and “Keep Moving Forward”.
Time to Put Up or Shut Up?
Americans are generally known for straight talk, cutting down to the chase or cutting out the bull. It is one of the great qualities I have always appreciated in ordinary Americans and some of their great leaders. They say what they mean and mean what they say. It was “plain talkin’” President Harry S. Truman who said, “I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.” So, I will do a little bit of straight talking. We have heard enough of human rights pontifications and declarations. We know all about the “challenges”, “problems”, “difficulties” and “issues” in improving human rights and good governance in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. We have also heard enough grousing, whining and complaining in Diaspora Ethiopian communities, particularly in the U.S., about what the U.S. has done, not done or could have done to to promote good governance, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. In President Obama’s second term, there are only two choices: Put up or Shut Up! Put another way, the U.S. can step up and stand tall with the brave Africans or roll over in bed with the shameless and cowardly dictators who cling to power through handouts, World Bank and IMF loans and the barrel of the gun.
How to Help the Brave Ethiopians: Where to Start?
Many veteran Ethiopian human rights advocates will no doubt remember H.R. 2003 (“Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007”; originally introduced as H.R. 4423 “Ethiopia Consolidation Act of 2005” by Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey when he chaired the Subcommittee on Africa and later renumbered as H.R. 4423 and H.R. 5680 in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs). Congress Donald Payne of New Jersey took the lead on H.R. 2003 when he became chairman of the Africa Subcommittee in 2007 and obtained the co-sponsorship of some 85 members of Congress. That bill passed the House in October 2007. Its key provisions focused on a number of issues central to good governance and protection of human rights in Ethiopia, including the release and/or speedy trial of all political prisoners in the country, prosecution of persons who have committed gross human rights violations, financial support to strengthen human rights and civil society groups and establishment of an independent judiciary, support for independent media operations, training assistance to strengthen legislative bodies, electoral commission and civil society groups, among others. Unfortunately, the bill never made it for a floor vote in the Senate.
Recently, the U.S. Congress passed and the President signed an important piece of legislation last week known as the “Sergei Magnitsky Law” (Senate Bill 1039 sponsored by democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, a long-time civil rights and civil liberties advocate and co-sponsored by 33 other Senators; and H.R. 4405 in the House sponsored by the well-known human rights advocate and democratic Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and co-sponsored by 15 other members). This law is designed to “impose sanctions on persons responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky, for the conspiracy to defraud the Russian Federation of taxes on corporate profits through fraudulent transactions and lawsuits and for other gross violations of human rights in the Russian Federation.” The “Magnitsky” language was incorporated in a larger legislation (‘‘Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012’’).
Sergei Magnitsky was a brave and principled 37-year-old Russian lawyer who exposed massive government corruption involving money-laundering by Russian officials. He died in prison in 2009. Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, citing the conclusions of the independent Presidential Council for the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, reported that Magnitsky was illegally arrested, detained and denied justice by the very courts and prosecutors of the Russian Federation he was investigating and accusing. While in detention Magnitsky was denied necessary medical care and died from beatings he received by prison guards. Despite overwhelming evidence of official criminality in the Magnitsky case, no officials have yet to be brought to justice.
The key provisions of the Magnitsky Law requires the State Department to maintain a list of human rights abusers in Russia, freeze their assets and deny them U.S. visas.
Section 404 of the law (“Identification of Persons Responsible for the Detention, Abuse and Death of Sergei Magnitsky and Other Gross Violators of Human Rights”) requires the President to submit to Congress within 120 days “a list” of names of persons likely to have been involved directly or indirectly in “the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky” and other individuals “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights committed against individuals seeking to expose illegal activity carried out by officials of the Government of the Russian Federation.”
Section 406 requires the President to use his legal authority to “freeze and prohibit all transactions in all property and interests in property of a person who is on the list required by section 404(a) if such property and interests in property are in the United States, come within the United States, or are or come within the possession or control of a United States person.” The law further imposes penalties on any “person that violates or conspires to violate” the law to the same extent as a person that commits an unlawful act.
Helping Ethiopia’s “Magnitskys”
In his 2009 Accra speech, President Obama told Africans that the U.S. will “increase assistance for responsible individuals and institutions, with a focus on supporting good governance… to advance transparency and accountability.” He also said that it is possible to “make change from the bottom up because in this moment, history is on the move.” Well, the moment of history to get Ethiopian human rights legislation passed through the U.S. Congress is now! There is a perfect alignment of the bipartisan legislative stars. Human rights as a policy issue is taking front and center among both Democrats and Republicans. The Magnitsky Law was a significant legislative victory not only for the memory of the brave Sergei Magnitsky but for all brave victims of official human rights abuses everywhere. Senator Cardin toiled for years to get the bill through Congress and managed to do so with the support of senior republicans. (Truth be told, the Obama administration did not support linking the human rights legislation to a trade bill, but in the end had to give in.)
The bipartisan support for human rights as evidenced in the Magnitsky Law is refreshing, invigorating, inspiring and long overdue. Republican Arizona Senator John McCain said the United States had a moral obligation to speak out for Magnitsky, as well as others who are still alive and languishing unjustly in Russian prisons: “We are sending a signal to Vladimir Putin and the Russian kleptocracy that these kind of abuses of human rights will not be tolerated without us responding in some appropriate fashion. I believe that this legislation is not anti Russia. I believe it’s pro Russia…. I continue to worry about them and I pray for them.” Republican Arizona Senator Jon Kyl said the bill should have applied to all countries. Democratic New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen said that the United States intends to pay attention to human rights everywhere. “We will stand up for those who dare to speak out against corruption. This bill is for all the Magnitskys around the world.” Senator Ben Cardin said he would push to make it universal in scope so it could be used to punish other human rights violators around the world. “Now we start a new chapter in human rights. The legislation sets a precedent for international conduct that we expect will be honored globally.” Even the White House issued a Statement indicating that the President will support legislation that will “promote the rule of law and respect for human rights around the world”.
There are thousands of “Ethiopian Magnitskys” who have been denied justice, languishing in prison and forgotten. For starters, there has been no accountability for the post-2005 election massacres in which, according to an official Ethiopian Inquiry Commission, some 200 unarmed demonstrators were gunned down and another 800 wounded by security and police officials of the regime. There is a certified list of at least 237 individuals known to be involved or strongly suspected of direct involvement in these crimes against humanity. It is mandatory that these officials be brought to trial without delay.
It is great to see a sea change in the U.S. Congress on the issue of human rights. There seems to be a new attitude and renewed commitment to human rights and good governance and a recognition that human rights are an integral part of international law and civilized humanity. President Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit.” President Jimmy Carter said, “America did not invent human rights. Human rights invented America.” In Ethiopia and many parts of Africa, the noblest aspirations of the human spirit go unfulfilled. And just like human rights invented America, I believe it is time for human rights to reinvent Ethiopia and the rest of Africa.
As far as I am concerned, what is good enough for the brave Sergei Magnitsky of Russia is good enough for the brave Melesachew D. Alemnew, age 16, Hadra S. Osman, age 22, Etenesh Yimam, age 50, Teodros Gidey Hailu, age 23, Gashaw T. Mulugeta, age 24, Lechisa K. Fatasa, age 21…. of Ethiopia! History is on the move. Now Ethiopian Americans, let’s get a move on! Yes, We Can have an “Ethiopian Magnitsky Law”! With a little help from our friends!
Standing tall with the “brave Africans” is standing up on the right side of history.
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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