Ethiopian Human Rights Resolution Passes House

Congressman Chris Smith’s (R-NJ) resolution, H.Res. 128, which condemns human rights abuses in Ethiopia and outlines steps the Ethiopian government can take to promote peace and democracy, passed the House on Tuesday afternoon in a voice vote. Before the vote, Smith spoke on the House Floor on Tuesday afternoon in support of his resolution which he introduced.

“H.Res. 128 is a visible and necessary manifestation of deep Congressional concern that egregious human rights abuses immediately end in Ethiopia and that fundamental human rights be promoted and protected for all,” Rep. Smith, chair of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, stated on the House Floor.

The resolution calls on the Ethiopian government to take concrete actions toward peace and democracy, including lifting the current state of emergency, ending the use of excessive force by security forces, respecting freedom of the press and of peaceful assembly, and investigating and holding accountable those responsible for killings, torture, and other abuses committed against civilians.

“Since late 2015, security forces have killed over 1,000 people and detained tens of thousands during widespread protests against government policies,” the group Human Rights Watch has reported. The current state of emergency, declared in February, is also the second in two years, and the government has restricted freedom of speech, the press, and peaceful assembly, while torture has been a serious problem in the detentions of citizens.

Smith has chaired four hearings on Ethiopia, including one in March of 2017 on “Democracy Under Threat in Ethiopia.”  He has promoted human rights in Ethiopia for decades, including through visits to the country and legislation including the Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006.

His resolution is supported by human rights groups like the Torture Abolition Survivor Support Coalition (TASSC), Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House. It is also supported by various Ethiopian-American diaspora groups including the Amhara Association of America, the Oromo Advocacy Alliance (OAA), the Coalition of Oromos for Human Rights and Democracy (COHRD), the Ethiopian American Civic Council (EACC), the Oromo Community of Denver (OCD), ADMAS, Ogaden Voice for Peace, and the Ethiopian Human Rights Project.

Below are excerpts of Smith’s remarks on the House Floor, “Respect for Ethiopian Human Rights”:

H.Res. 128 is a visible and necessary manifestation of deep Congressional concern that egregious human rights abuses immediately end in Ethiopia and that fundamental human rights be promoted and protected for all. (I would note that like others in this House, my commitment to promoting human rights in Ethiopia spans decades and includes country visits, chairing numerous congressional hearings and legislation including the Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights Advancement Act of 2006.)

The resolution is balanced and recognizes the recent peaceful and voluntary transfer of power from Prime Minister Hailemariam to a new Prime Minister Abiy and welcomes Prime Minister Abiy’s inaugural speech calling for open political competition and the defense of fundamental human rights.

Prime Minister  Abiy has been a member of the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) since the EPRDF took power in 1991.  Prior to becoming Prime Minister, however he played a critical role in the government security apparatus as the co-founder of the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency (INSA). He is the leader of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO)—one of four ethnic groups that make up the EPRDF.

And H.Res. 128 commends Ethiopia’s efforts to promote regional peace and security, as well as our partnership in addressing health challenges.

However, the resolution carefully and accurately highlights that despite these developments human rights abuses remain at the core of the government’s treatment of the Ethiopian people.

So after decades of serious human rights abuse—often ignored or trivialized by some in Africa, the EU and the United States—it’s now time for positive action and meaningful deeds.

In a letter asking Members of Congress to support my resolution, Amnesty International notes that in the last two months the government has released a large number of political prisoners—although many remain behind bars—and closed the notorious Maekelawi Prison known for torture.  Yet some have already been rearrested and all are at risk of rearrest.  Making matters worse, the repressive laws and state of emergency used to brutalize people remains in place.

          Human Rights Watch strongly supports H.Res. 128 and has reported that: “Since late 2015, security forces have killed over 1,000 people and detained tens of thousands during widespread protests against government policies.  A state of emergency began in February 2018, the second in two years, and permits draconian restrictions on rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.  Authorities regularly use arbitrary arrests and politically motivated prosecutions to silence journalists, activists and perceived opposition party members.  Torture remains a serious problem in detention.  The Ethiopian government has not conducted meaningful investigations into any of these abuses.  Repressive laws restrict the activities of nongovernmental organizations.  The ruling coalition won all 547 parliamentary seats in the 2015 election.”

The 2017 Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Ethiopia cited serious human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, killings, and torture committed by security forces, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, politically motivated trials, harassment, and intimidation of opposition members and journalists including violence against civilians in the Oromia, Amhara and Somali regions of Ethiopia.

On February 18, 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia issued a strong statement against the state of emergency:

“We strongly disagree with the Ethiopian government’s decision to impose a state of emergency that includes restrictions on fundamental rights such as assembly and expression.

“We recognize and share concerns expressed by the government about incidents of violence and loss of life, but firmly believe that the answer is greater freedom, not less.

“The challenges facing Ethiopia, whether to democratic reform, economic growth, or lasting stability, are best addressed through inclusive discourse and political processes, rather than through the imposition of restrictions.

“The declaration of a state of emergency undermines recent positive steps toward creating a more inclusive political space, including the release of thousands of prisoners. Restrictions on the ability of the Ethiopian people to express themselves peacefully sends a message that they are not being heard.

“We strongly urge the government to rethink this approach and identify other means to protect lives and property while preserving, and indeed expanding, the space for meaningful dialogue and political participation that can pave the way to a lasting democracy.”

My resolution—cosponsored by over 110 members of the House—calls on the Government of Ethiopia to:

·         Lift the state of emergency;

·         Repeal or amend proclamations used as a tool to suppress human rights in Ethiopia including the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (which accuses any Ethiopian who criticizes the government of being a “terrorist”) and the Charities and Societies Proclamation (which makes it virtually impossible for civil society organizations to function by severely restricting foreign funding)

·         Stop killing peaceful protesters and hold accountable those responsible for killing, torturing, and detaining innocent civilians;

·         Release dissidents, journalists, students, activists and political leaders jailed for exercising their right to free expression and peaceful assembly;

·         Engage with citizens about development strategies, (especially when people could lose their land)

·         Allow a UN rapporteur unfettered access to examine the state of human rights in Ethiopia.

·         Calls on the U.S. Department of State and USAID to among other things, engage in a cooperative effort with the Government of Ethiopia in the formulation of a comprehensive strategy to help advance democracy, rule of law, human rights, economic  growth and peace and security in Ethiopia and hold accountable individuals responsible for gross human rights violations in Ethiopia through appropriate mechanisms including the Global Magnitsky Act.

Mr. Speaker, let me conclude by thanking Congressman Mike Coffman from Colorado for his devotion, concern and deep empathy for the people of Ethiopia and for his extraordinary assistance on this bipartisan legislation.

Special thanks as well to Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy for his personal interest in this initiative as well as Africa Subcommittee Ranking Member Bass, Foreign Affairs Chairman Royce and Ranking Member Engle.

I would also like to thank the many human rights groups and the Ethiopian-American community who have and continue to work diligently and tenaciously to secure fundamental human rights for the people of Ethiopia.

Article first published here

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