Mr. President, today I am introducing the Support for Democracy and Human Rights in Ethiopia Act of 2008. Senator Leahy joins me as an original cosponsor. The purpose of this bill is to reaffirm policy objectives towards Ethiopia and encourage greater commitment to the underpinnings of a true democracy – an independent judiciary and the rule of law, respect for human and political rights, and an end to restrictions on the media and non-government organizations.
As many in this body know, I have spoken numerous times in recent months about the situation in Ethiopia and I continue to believe that the US-Ethiopian partnership is very important – one of the more critical ones given not only our historic relationship but also Ethiopia’s location in an increasingly strategic region. Ethiopia sits on the Horn of Africa – perhaps one of the roughest neighborhoods in the world, with Somalia a failed state and safe haven for terrorists, Eritrea an inaccessible authoritarian government that meddles across national borders, Sudan a genocidal regime, and Kenya still emerging from a profound electoral crisis. One look at the deteriorating situation across the Horn and the importance of a robust relationship with Ethiopia is obvious. And, by contrast with some of its neighbors, Ethiopia appears relatively stable with a growing economy. But I am concerned about a number of anti-democratic actions in that country, particularly since this administration has largely overlooked them.
The security threats in Ethiopia are real but, unfortunately, the Bush administration’s approach to addressing these threats and strengthening this alliance remains short-sighted and narrow – focusing predominately on short-term ways to address insecurity while overlooking the need for long-term measures that are needed to achieve the same goal, such as desperately needed governance reform, the rule of law, and increased accountability. Mr. President, genuine democratic progress in Ethiopia is essential if we are to have a healthy and positive bilateral relationship. It is also essential if we are going to successfully combat extremism, thereby bolstering our own national security here at home.
And that is why today I’m introducing the Support for Democracy and Human Rights in Ethiopia Act of 2008 -- because as our administration fails to balance our priorities in Ethiopia, or to adopt comprehensive strategies to achieve those priorities, we are watching significant backsliding in previously hard-won democratic gains. As we turn a blind eye to the escalating political tensions, people are being thrown in jail without justification and non-government organizations are being restricted, while civilians are dying unnecessarily in the Ogaden region – just like so many before them in Oromiya, Amhara, and Gambella. Furthermore, the Ethiopian military has come under increasing scrutiny for its conduct in the Ogaden as well as Somalia, with credible reports from non-governmental organizations of torture, rape and indiscriminate attacks. By providing unconditioned security assistance we are also sowing the seeds of insecurity and creating new grievances both in Ethiopia and in its neighboring countries.
I want to see greater progress – not less – in Ethiopia which is why this bill authorizes an additional $20 million for democracy and governance projects in Ethiopia. The addition of these funds would make it one of the top five countries on the continent receiving this kind of assistance from this US government. This bill calls on the President to take additional steps to implement these programs but also requires that funds made available to the Ethiopian government be subject to regular congressional notification. This ensures U.S. taxpayer dollars are being used appropriately – and used to support a government taking steps to become more democratic, not less.
I make it a practice to pay for all bills I introduce, and the authorization in this bill is offset by a transfer of funds from NASA. Some may disagree with me on the need for an offset, but recent Office of Management and Budget projections confirm that we now have the biggest budget deficit in the history of our country. We cannot afford to be fiscally irresponsible so we must make choices to ensure that our children and grandchildren do not bear the burden of our reckless spending. Instead of cutting specific programs, which are likely to have begun and thus would cost more to close, transferring $20 million from the general budget would allow appropriators to evaluate, at their discretion, how best to make this transfer.
I ask my colleagues to consider what our own State Department has said about the political situation in Ethiopia and then consider how best to rectify the situation. The 2007 State Department Report on Human Rights notes that in Ethiopia the following occurred: “limitation[s] on citizens' right to change their government during the most recent elections; unlawful killings, and beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly of those suspected of sympathizing with or being members of the opposition or insurgent groups; detention of thousands without charge and lengthy pretrial detention; infringement on citizens' privacy rights and frequent refusal to follow the law regarding search warrants; use of excessive force by security services in an internal conflict and counter-insurgency operations; restrictions on freedom of the press; arrest, detention, and harassment of journalists for publishing articles critical of the government; restrictions on freedom of assembly; limitations on freedom of association; violence and societal discrimination against women and abuse of children; female genital mutilation (FGM); exploitation of children for economic and sexual purposes; trafficking in persons; societal discrimination against persons with disabilities and religious and ethnic minorities; and government interference in union activities, including killing and harassment of union leaders.”
The continued failure of the administration to acknowledge this reality is emblematic of its insular thinking and unwillingness to see the big picture. Without a balanced policy that addresses both short and long-term concerns in Ethiopia we are putting ourselves at greater risk and making ourselves more vulnerable, not less.