Excerpts from Rep. Smith's Newmakers Speech on Ethiopia and Human Rights
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Africa, Global Health and International Operations Subcommittee, today delivered the following remarks at a "Newsmakers" event at that National Press Club:
Human rights in Ethiopia is not a burning question in Washington today. It ought to be. We don’t read, or hear, or talk much about it. That has to change, and I believe most of us here today know that. That’s why we’re here.
I got involved in Ethiopian human rights issues during Ethiopia’s infamous famines—when food was used by the Mengistu dictatorship as a “weapon” to murder countless women, men and children. In the eighties, I joined members on both sides of the aisle in pushing for “corridors of tranquility”—a safe means by which humanitarian aid workers would be permitted to deliver food, medicines, clothing and shelter to hundreds of thousands who were literally starving.
My most recent involvement took off when I visited Ethiopia in August 2005. This was two months after the post-election slaughter in Addis of scores of pro-democracy demonstrators, and the harassment, arrest and detention of thousands of political prisoners.
In Addis I had talks with a broad section of political, civic, religious, diplomatic and political leaders. I met with Mr. Hailu Shawel, the Chairman of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy. I met with the Patriarch. I met with the European diplomats who led the election observer mission and many others.
I also had a lengthy meeting with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. I urged him to investigate the slaughter of the pro-democracy demonstrators, to punish those responsible, and to release all political prisoners. I raised my deep concerns regarding the lack of fairness—especially the intimidation tactics employed by his agents--during the recent national elections. I told him that I believed it wrong and counterproductive to have ousted the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). By banishing these highly respected organizations, his regime was begging the question: What is it that you don’t want the world to see? What are you hiding? I asked the Prime Minister to invite them back. I also raised concerns regarding the egregiously flawed means by which contested election outcomes where being adjudicated.
I also expressed my deepest disappointment and sorrow over his regimes recent legalization of abortion on demand and argued that Ethiopia’s women and children have suffered enough death. Abortion is violence against children—it dismembers and chemically poisons babies--and it hurts women physically and psychologically. (In a meeting with Ethiopia’s Justice Minister, I was told that the government’s new abortion policy was written by a U.S. pro-abortion non-governmental organization.)
Finally, when I asked the Prime Minister to work with the opposition and show respect and tolerance for those with differing views on the challenges facing Ethiopia he said, “I have a file on all of them; they are all guilty of treason.”
I was struck by his all-knowing tone. Guilty! They’re all guilty simply because Meles says so? No trial? Not even a Kangaroo court?
I urged Prime Minister Meles not to take that route.
I remember thinking, as I got on the plane for the flight home, we need the equivalent of the Belarus Democracy Act and the Vietnam Human Rights Act--for Ethiopia. As you may know, I am the prime author of the Belarus Democracy Act signed into law by President Bush on October 20, 2004 as well as the Vietnam Human Rights Act (HR 3096) which has passed the House of Representatives on three separate occasions (most recently on September 17th). Working off both those country-specific models, I wrote the first outline draft of the Ethiopia Human Rights Bill on the flight back to Washington. Greg Simpkins, my subcommittee’s Africa specialist at that time did a superb job on the draft bill.
Over the course of the next several months, my friend and colleague Don Payne helped shape the legislation. What emerged for House floor consideration was a bipartisan bill, that if enacted would have made a serious difference.
The bill provided financial support to human rights promoters in Ethiopia, and conditioned certain forms of U.S. Government assistance to the Ethiopian Government on that government meeting a very modest list of human rights benchmarks.
When we tried to bring it to the floor after approval by the full International Relations Committee, we were blocked. This year, in the new Congress, Mr. Payne introduced the bill and we worked together again, and this time, despite furious lobbying by the Ethiopian Government and others against the bill, the House of Representatives adopted it.
Now we have to help the bill get through the Senate. I’m afraid voices are already being raised against the bill in the Senate, and in the Administration. One of the things they are saying now is that the bill fails to recognize that the situation in Ethiopia has gotten better.
First, if the situation has improved, which is highly debatable, or if it does improve, the legislation contains a broad waiver of its punitive sections. The bill gives the President complete flexibility to respond to any improvement--or deterioration--on the ground. However, given the recent history of systematic human rights abuse by the Meles regime and the credible reports of rape and slaughter in Ogaden, it is hard for any reasonable person to trust the government or anything it might say without independent verification, fresh accountability, genuine transparency, and systemic reform.
Everything that has happened since 2005 has only made the need for our legislation more compelling. In July 2006 the chairman of the Commission of Inquiry into the slaughter of 2005 fled the country, and his replacement did the same in September. In October one of them said that the government had pressured the Commission into changing its findings, and announced that most of the 193 demonstrators killed had died from shots to the head. Some of Ethiopia’s best and brightest and bravest spent almost two years in prison on trumped up charges and today remain at risk of unjust and capricious incarceration. There are no indications that Meles has embraced the rule of just law or an independent judiciary.
I believe that neither we nor the international community has pushed the Meles government hard enough on human rights issues because we have been satisfied it cooperates with us to some extent in the war on terror. The war on terror is very important, but no regime that terrorizes its own citizens can be a reliable ally in the war on terror. Terrorism isn’t just a military issue. It is also a human rights issue. Terrorists come from countries where their governments fail to respect their human rights. In promoting human rights in Ethiopia, we are attacking terrorism at its roots.
As you know, the Ogaden is a region of eastern Ethiopia of mixed ethnicity where the Ethiopian Government, fighting an insurgency, has carried the war to the innocent civilian population. Many, perhaps most, of the people who live in the Ogaden are Somalis. According to many reports, the Ethiopian National Defense Force is using the most brutal tactics imaginable against them.
Ogadeni villages suspected of supporting ONLF insurgents have been burned down, young women from these villages gang-raped and killed, men beaten to death. Refugees are making their way to Somalia, where, near the port of Bosasso, they have built ramshackle refugee camps. Journalists have been banned from the Ogaden, where the Ethiopian air force has bombed villages, and the Ethiopian army has destroyed crops, and prevented food and medical aid from being brought into the region. During the Summer, Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross were expelled.
Just a few weeks ago we heard testimony on these atrocities on the Africa Subcommittee. A representative of Human Rights Watch said that, while “the Ogaden is not Darfur yet, it is probably only a few months away from sliding over the edge into a full-blown humanitarian crisis of massive proportions.”
One newspaper, The Independent on October 17th published a story with the headline: Ethiopia’s ‘own Darfur’ as villagers flee government-backed violence. The story, written by Steve Bloomfield described the harrowing abduction by government troops of seven young girls from on village—all aged between 15 and 18. “The following mourning the youngest girl was found. Her body, bloodied and beaten, was hanging from a tree. The next day a second girl was found hanging from the same tree. A third suffered the same fate. The others were never seen again.”
The story goes on: “A former Ethiopian soldier who defected from the army said how he had been ordered to burn villages and kill all their inhabitants. He said the Ethiopian air force would bomb a village before a unit of ground troops followed, firing indiscriminately at civilians. ‘Men, women, children—we killed them all,’ he said.”