HR stands for human rights; let's stand up for HR 2003 in 2008

By Alemayehu G. Mariam / Jan 08, 2008
The truth is finally out! The H.R. in H.R. 2003 stands for Human Rights! H.R. has become the special code for the Ethiopian people whenever they want to talk about the rule of law and due process and freedom of expression and association. It has become their special lingo to talk about the need for an independent press and an independent judiciary and for clean elections and the rest of it. And human rights were the rage in Ethiopia in the third quarter of 2007. From the barstools of the Sheraton and Hilton hotels to the tattered wooden benches of the tej, tella and katikalla bets, the talk was H.R. Farmers, day laborers and even listros (shoeshiners) wistfully talked about H.R. “This H.R. We need her! If only we had HeR., …” they’d pine away.

From the universities to the school yard, it was all about H.R. The mantra of the Grant Run was H.R. “We want H.R. Pass H.R. now!”, the multitudes chanted in unison as they pounded the pavement. Sinecured politicians and bureaucrats, and sycophants lined up to condemn H.R. On regime-controlled radio, television and in the “newspapers”, it was H.R. H.R. H.R. H.R.!!!! The Ethiopian Diaspora basked in the sunlight of H.R., fresh from a unanimous House vote. In the United States, the epicenter of the H.R. phenomenon, and in Canada, Europe and Australia, and in the Middle East and Africa, they sang the H.R. song. Just like Harry Belafonte sang his freedom song: “If I had a hammer”. If we had H.R., we too would hammer for justice, and ring the bell of freedom all over the land. Ah! If we only we had H.R….

Let’s Thank Our Adversaries!

Passage of H.R. 2003 in the U.S. House of Representatives in October, 2007 “rocked their world”. They could not believe they would be thumped so decisively so well protected by the Armey of D.L.A. Piper. They frothed at the mouth. They recoiled in cold sweat. They cried foul. But all to no avail. H.R. had captivated the imagination of all Ethiopians. It was embedded deep in their psyche. H.R. had become the symbol of hope for millions who have been forced to endure hopelessness. The very acronym, H.R., had a magical quality of deliverance to it. It was empowering, and inspiring. Every time Ethiopians uttered the H.R. acronym, it was at once an act of defiance and of civil disobedience; and also a muted cry for help, an S.O.S. to America and the world for dignity, for democracy and for the rule of law.

How did H.R. 2003 become a symbol of hope and redemption, and an envelope for the hopes and desires of 76 million people? Well, we must give due credit to our adversaries for this singular achievement. They helped spread the gospel of human rights far and wide in Ethiopia. We could not have done it with them!

Of course, they did not intend to spread our human rights message. They were just victims of the law of unintended consequences. Their sole aim was to disparage and caricature H.R. 2003 and inflame public passions by fabricating nonsensical arguments about the bill. In fact, they pulled out all the stops to malign and distort the simple and unmistakable message of H.R. 2003. The litany of falsehoods and distortions about the bill changed and became more absurd by the day. They said H.R. 2003 will bring “slavery” and “colonialism” to Ethiopia. The people laughed. “The mighty Italian army with its tanks, planes and mustard gas could not enslave and colonize Ethiopia. Could America with a stroke of the legislative pen?”

They even resurrected the Ghost of Wuchale to support the fallacious argument that H.R. 2003 destroys Ethiopian sovereignty and usurps the legislative functions of the Ethiopian “parliament”. In the Wuchale Treaty, Menelik supposedly gave Eritrea to the Italians and agreed to have the Italians prosecute Ethiopian foreign policy. But did he really? No doubt, those who now trumpet their unabashed pride in liberating Eritrea could answer that question definitively. Only “parliament” can pass human rights laws, they said. The people chuckled, “Save parliament’s time. Just respect, follow and apply your constitution.” But why can’t they respect and follow their own constitution?

They said H.R. 2003 will undermine the current effort to build democracy in Ethiopia. They forgot they had told everyone for the last 17 years that Ethiopia was a democracy and a republic. Apparently, not. But if they are indeed building democracy now, it must be a democracy without foundation. There is no evidence of the rule of law as a cornerstone of this supposed democratic edifice. No independent press or independent judiciary as a support beam. No due process of law and no clean elections to make this vacant building a home for the people. They said H.R. 2003 is the only one of its kind stirred up by vindictive Diasporans who seek to harm Ethiopia. They seemed to be willfully ignorant of similar bills that are currently pending in Congress for North Korea, Iran and Vietnam, or others that have been recently enacted against Burma and the Sudan, among others. They tried to smear pro-democracy forces who support H.R. 2003. They threatened dire diplomatic consequences should the bill be enacted into law: “America will not have an ally in the war against terror in the Horn of Africa.” Sure, everyone knows what happened to the dog that bit the hand that fed it.

For months, our adversaries worked themselves into a frenzy rolling out one lie after another in a futile attempt to discredit H.R. 2003 and take the peoples’ eyes off the prize. But no amount of propaganda and disinformation could convince the people that H.R. 2003 is a bad thing for them, or for Ethiopia. The people remained spellbound by the almost magical quality of H.R. 2003, and its promise to promote the rule of law, accountability, democracy and freedom in Ethiopia.

Our adversaries did more to teach the people of Ethiopia about human rights than we ever could in the Diaspora. The more lies they told about H.R. 2003, the more people became convinced of the righteousness of H.R. 2003 and the urgent need for the defense of their human rights. Every word of condemnation and censure of H.R. 2003 became a blessing in disguise to the cause of human rights in Ethiopia. People knew what they knew. They could not speak the truth out loud because the fox is guarding the henhouse. But that does not mean the chickens do not know the truth about the treacherous fox, or that the fox has convinced them into believing that it is necessary to violate their human rights to preserve it for them. Ultimately, H.R. 2003 proved to be a small bill that gave great hope to the Ethiopian people.

But despite the massive official campaign against H.R. 2003, the people did not rise up with righteous indignation and burn the American flag in the streets of Addis or any other city. They did not burn George Bush in effigy. They did not carry placards that said “Yankee go home!”. Not a single person said a critical word against H.R. 2003 during the Great Run of 2007. So we must sincerely thank our adversaries for what they have done to spread the message of human rights in Ethiopia, and encourage them to continue to malign, distort and criticize H.R. 2003.

H.R. 2003 in the U.S. Senate and in the American Political Process

The defeat of H.R. 2003 in the Senate has been trumpeted over the past months. Regime leaders and their minions have confidently proclaimed that H.R. 2003 will not be enacted into law because it will not pass the Senate. They arrogantly declared that even if the Senate were to pass it, Bush will certainly veto it since he understands the “bill is wrong and that Ethiopia is a poor country, not a poor dog.” But even if Bush were to sign the bill into law, they said “we would reject it” because “our constitution would not allow it as it represents a violation of our sovereignty, and the only people who could make laws are sitting in this parliament.” They even threatened American policy makers: “Ethiopian American cooperation will stop if they seek to implement the law”. They managed to enlist the huckster Jim Inhofe in the Senate to stonewall H.R. 2003. He obligingly vowed to defeat the bill. All indications are Inhofe will place a “hold” (delay floor action on the bill as much as possible) on the bill, and possibly even filibuster (a special senate procedure that requires the vote of 60 other members to bring a bill to a floor vote) it should it proceed to the Senate floor.

But we should not be discouraged by all the bluster and swagger. The forces of evil will do what they will. It is up to the forces of good to rise up and challenge them by doing good. We did good, damn good, just this past year. Who will forget the dark days of November, 2006, when Speaker Hastert snuffed the lights out of H.R. 5680? True, evil prevailed that November, but not for long. We came back in April; and on the exact anniversary of the defeat of H.R. 5680, we got H.R. 2003 passed in the House, unanimously. We persisted, therefore we prevailed! We prevailed because we learned the same lesson Winston Churchill learned when confronted by the overwhelming might of the Nazi war machine: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” We must persist, again!

The struggle in the Senate will not be an easy one. We face many obstacles -- procedural, structural and the adverse effects of partisan bickering from the campaign trail. Senate procedures make it possible for a single senator to obstruct the flow of legislation. “Holds”, “filibusters”, “unanimous consent” and other arcane senate procedures and traditions afford individual senators extraordinary powers to thwart speedy consideration and action on legislation. Committee hearings, legislative schedules and debates take place at the Senate’s (snail’s) pace. In the first half of 2008, the Senate will have a full plate. The war in Iraq will remain a contentious issue as will immigration and efforts to mitigate the predicted recessionary effects of the massive mortgage crises. The Senate itself is in a logjam with the balance of power evenly divided between 49 Democrats and 49 Republicans and 2 Independents. The run up to the November 2008 elections will have its own special effect on the Senate agenda, as both parties try to curry support from voters.

Despite the vicissitudes of election year politics and intricate legislative procedures, we can and we will prevail in the Senate. But we must redouble our efforts. There are many things going in our favor. Tectonic transformations are looming in the American political landscape. Americans want change, desperately and now. Who would have thought just a few weeks ago that a black man could sweep the Iowa caucuses in a rural state with a predominantly “white” population? But race did not matter to Iowans. Change did. Even in New Hampshire, Obama is in dead heat with Clinton. Republican Mike Huckabee, a relative unknown from one of the poorest states in America, trounced multimillionaire Mitt Romney, from one of the richest states in america, who outspent him in Iowa by more than six to one. The bottom line is that Americans are fed up with lies, liars, war mongers, and incompetents running their government and foreign policy.

There is no question that Americans are deeply concerned and are very unhappy about their country’s image, role and presence in the international community. They don’t want America to be the policeman of the world. They understand that the war on terrorism can not be won simply by bombing and breaking the bones of the enemies of democracy and freedom. They know it is essential to also reach the hearts and minds of those who oppose America. Americans want their troops back from Iraq, and they want an end to the reckless global military adventurism that wastes their hard earned tax dollars. They realize the best weapon to ensure American primacy in woirld affairs is a foreign policy genuinely based on promoting human rights, the rule of law, democratic institutions, independent judiciaries and independent free press isntitutions, among others. Even the republican presidential candidates are now earnestly talking about the vital need to promote human rights in the Islamic world and wherever else dictators dictate. Even the bought-and-paid-for politicians now understand that one can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Change in American foreign policy means changing the image of the “ugly American” who wants to dominate the world by brute military force. Change means a recognition of the stark fact that America can reclaim its honored role in the world by upholding its founding principles enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Americans want a foreign policy that is humane and compassionate, not one that thrives on rabid militarism and the spectre of terrorism. Therein lies our hope and inevitable ultimate victory, despite temporary setbacks, the machinations of hucksters and fat cat lobbyists. Our cause is on the same side of the cause of the American people.

Beware the Ruse of the Adversary

Our adversaries would have you believe that the struggle for human rights in Ethiopia rises or falls with H.R. 2003. If the bill does not pass, they would like to have us believe, we have lost. The cause of human rights in Ethiopia is defeated and lost forever. We should beware the demoralizing propaganda and disinformation campaign of the adversary. We have no illusions about H.R. 2003. We believe it to be an important strategic tool in the struggle for human rights, but none of us believes it to be a cure-all for all human rights violations in Ethiopia. Anyone who has read the bill knows that the certification requirements give the president of the United States considerable discretion in determining statutory compliance. For instance, the president could refuse to apply the law if s/he felt applying it would compromise American national interest. So there are limitations to the bill even if it were enacted into law.

What we should clearly understand is the fact that H.R. 2003 is just one mile marker on the long walk to a free and democratic Ethiopia. That road neither begins nor ends in the U.S. Congress. That journey takes entirely in the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people. We have always said that we shall win the struggle for human rights by winning hearts and minds of our brothers and sisters, not by breaking their bones and hearts. And how we win hearts and minds is no secret. We tell the truth; nothing but the truth. So help us God! Of course, we have no choice but to speak truth to power, because as Scripture teaches, the “truth shall set us free.”

It is in the nature of human beings to yearn to be free; to be treated with dignity and respect; to be treated fairly and equally before the law. This yearning is the same for the filthy rich as it is for the dirt poor; the same for the young as it is for the old; for men as it is for women; for the educated and the illiterate alike. Human rights are to the human spirit of freedom as religion is to the immortal soul and bread to the mortal body. Man and woman need to be protected from political predators who derive their thrills from oppressing and persecuting the powerless. Humans need their fundamental rights protected and respected, by law. This Truth we must proclaim till Kingdom come!

The Task Ahead: Let’s Pass H.R. 2003 in the Senate!

H.R. 2003 now sits in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It needs to get committee action and get to the floor for a vote. It can be done, but it requires unceasing effort and unflinching commitment. We must keep doing what we have been doing, but we must do some of it differently. We must be better organized. We must do less freelancing and more concerted and coordinated grassroots action. We must intensify our efforts with individual senators from our respective states. We must educate and develop working relationships with their staffers. We must share with them the truth about human rights abuses on a regular basis. We must win the hearts and minds of our Senators with the Truth if we are to ultimately win.

Above all, we must resolve to stay with H.R. 2003 for the long haul. In the battle between good and evil, evil wins many skirmishes. But good wins in the end, always! That is the history of all dictatorships from time immemorial. They win for a time, but not for all time. Even the soulless tyrant knows he can not oppress forever. But Congress is not the only place we can plead our human rights cause. There is a much higher court than Congress to which we can appeal. It is a court called the Conscience of the American People. There we must plead our cause passionately and relentlessly. In the state legislatures. Before civic and professional organizations. In the churches, and universities and schools, and wherever else we can be heard. We must create awareness among our American friends, neighbors and coworkers. As others enlist hucksters, we must enlist the help of Average Joe American. We must make the American people our natural allies. We must tell them the truth about the massacre of 193 innocent people, and the thousands of nameless souls that have perished at the hands of a ruthless regime. And the thousands more that languish in subhuman jails today. We must speak up about those who abuse their powers and inflict great pain and suffering on their people. We must expose their evil deeds and evil ways. In all we do we must maintain unflagging fidelity to the Truth. And we must “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Let’s join hands and pass H.R. 2003 in 2008.

The writer, Al Mariam, is an LA-based attorney and a professor in political science. He can be reached at