Friday, September 26, 2008

Supporting Senator Obama shouldn't mean vilification of Ethiopia

A Week in the Horn

26 September 2008

Addis Ababa

Last week, US Congressman, Representative Donald Payne (Democrat, New Jersey) addressed a gathering of Ethiopians in Washington, D.C. The apparent purpose was to urge the community to support the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama, in his bid to become the next President of the United States. We do not, of course, have any intent to be involved in the domestic politics of another state, even of a close friend. However, when a US Congressman uses a domestic political campaign event to vilify Ethiopia, it does raise some questions why he goes to such lengths to try to tarnish Ethiopia’s image and damage the good relations between Ethiopia and the United States.

In his address to the meeting, Representative Payne claimed he was particularly concerned by political and human rights conditions in Ethiopia. He cited a litany of unsubstantiated allegations of violations. Ethiopia, of course, does not claim to have a perfect record in its efforts to build a strong democratic society, but it is, nevertheless, a country that has regular free multi-party elections, a thriving free press, a constitution and mechanisms to address human rights issues including a Human Rights Commission and an Ombudsman's Office. Is there room for improvement? Certainly. That is why both government and people continue efforts to strengthen the judicial and political institutions necessary to achieve and sustain improved performances in all areas of democratization including the protection of human rights.

If Representative Payne is really genuine in his frequently stated concern for human rights and democracy, it is surprising that he has made so little of Eritrea, a country he visited early this year. Eritrea, after all, has no constitution, refuses to hold elections, only allows one political party, the ruling Peoples Front for Democracy and Justice, does not allow any independent media, has been designated as a country of particular concern for severe violations of religious freedom for the last four years,and has been roundly criticized by Reporters Without Borders and by all Eritrean Human Rights organizations, all of which are obliged to operate from exile. Mr. Payne is also no doubt aware of the eleven ministers and senior officials, and a number of journalists, rounded up by the Eritrean government on September 18, 2001. Held incommunicado, without charge or trial, for seven years, nothing has been heard of them. Thousands more are detained indefinitely, again without charge or trial, many for attempting to escape national conscription which for tens of thousands has lasted for more more than a decade. Representative Payne's reluctance to comment on Eritrea's appalling record on human rights while continuing to vilify Ethiopia, suggests he is driven less by any concern for human rights than by his own personal anti-Ethiopian agenda.

Representative Payne also told his audience that under an Obama administration, “we will not turn a blind eye to abuses just because some governments pretend to be allies in the war on terror.” This is obviously an allusion to Ethiopia which the United States certainly considers a friend. We have no knowledge whether Mr. Payne is accurate in his view of Senator Obama's possible policies. However, his effort to raise support for Senator Obama among members of the more extreme Ethiopian opposition elements in the Diaspora, by promising hostility to the present government of Ethiopia, is scarcely a friendly act. It is also perhaps unfair to the Presidential candidate himself who appears far too statesmanlike to associate himself with such disgraceful activity. We would recall that Representative Payne was the main architect of HR 2003, a much criticized bill which he claimed would support human rights and democracy in Ethiopia. The bill failed to materialize in part because it was seen as ill-conceived and hardly conducive to good US/Ethiopian relations, nor, we might add, to US/African relations either. In his speech last week, Representative Payne made clear his regret for the failure, claiming that the Government of Ethiopia had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to kill it. The Government did not: it had no need to.

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