We must stand with the people of Ethiopia

Sen. Russell Feingold statement on Ethiopia -- (Senate - June 20, 2008)
We must stand with the people of Ethiopia and with the principles that Americans hold dear.
“We must stand with the people of Ethiopia and with the principles that Americans hold dear."
Sen. Russell Feingold (D_WI): Mr. President, Ethiopia has increasingly been an active participant in the international community and a leader on the African continent--as a charter member of the United Nations, a cofounder of what are now the African Union and Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and a key partner in combating international terrorism. After decades, and some would say centuries of civil strife, the 1994 Constitution and election of the coalition Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF, in 1995 seemed to herald the beginning of an era of peace, democracy, and development. Efforts to reform the economy and political dynamics, while slow, reversed the devastating impact of the Derg and gave the people of Ethiopia some hope that a robust democracy was really taking root. In fact, in the runup to the 2005 elections, there was a deliberate and significant opening of political space--which included broad media coverage of opposition parties, relatively unimpeded access for

Indeed, for years, the U.S. State Department has reported "widespread human rights abuses" in its annual country report on Ethiopia. Among the most consistent violations listed are the intimidation, beating, abuse, and arbitrary arrest and detention by Government security forces of journalists, opposition supporters, union leaders, and others who dare to challenge the ruling party. Some of the more egregious examples associated with the growing opposition began in 2005 and include the arrest and prosecution for capital offenses of 131 major opposition leaders and the arbitrary detention of 30,000 to 50,000 civilians without charge. The ruling party also forcibly closed opposition political offices that same year and kept them closed through the eve of local elections this past April. Such conduct is a clear violation of regional and international human rights laws, to which Ethiopia is a signatory, and directly contradicts the country's own Constitution, still only 12 years old.

Over the past year, I have become increasingly concerned by reports coming out of the Ogadan region of Ethiopia regarding military attacks on civilians and Government blockades of essential humanitarian and commercial supplies. National and international aid organizations with field missions in the area describe security forces burning villages and Government officials ordering entire village populations to move to specific "resettlement" locations that lack sufficient

The aid organizations now struggling to keep these Ethiopian civilians alive, as well as national and international human rights defenders, democracy advocates, independent journalists, and humanitarian organizations seeking to consolidate and extend peace, democracy, and development in Ethiopia, are already facing cumbersome bureaucratic rules and sometime succumb to self-censorship to avoid Government reprisals. The Ethiopian Government's new law, if passed in its current format, would make it almost impossible for these groups and individuals to continue their important efforts. Under the Charities and Societies Proclamation, non-Ethiopian organizations would be prohibited from engaging in democracy, human rights, good governance, or conflict resolution activities, and national civil society groups would have to forgo foreign funding and submit to strict Government regulation.

To reaffirm and facilitate Ethiopia's commitment to and progress towards democratic development, eliminating extremism, good governance, combating HIV/AIDS, improving agricultural productivity, and reducing chronic hunger, the U.S. Government has provided billions of dollars worth of assistance in recent years with more than $700 million already in fiscal year 2008. The majority of this support is delivered through U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations that offer essential services and supplies to civilians as well as valuable technical assistance and resources to strengthen Ethiopian institutions and infrastructure. The new restrictions and regulations would severely limit or even prohibit much of this assistance and should cause the United States as well as other international donors to reconsider whether contributions to Ethiopia can further democracy, development and accountability.

The Ethiopian Government claims the new regulations are aimed at improving the accountability and transparency of civil society organizations operating in Ethiopia. But what the provisions would actually do is erode the Government's own accountability and transparency by impeding these organizations' ability to serve their essential watchdog functions. This is not the time or place for tighter controls. Instead, the Ethiopian Government should support improvements in the quality and capacity of these groups, which are vital to the country's continued political, economic, and social development.

The United States needs to work with our partners--both on the continent and off it--and strongly oppose the imposition of this new proclamation to protect the gains Ethiopia has made in recent years and pave the way for further consolidation of growth and democracy. If passed in its current format, this bill would have a devastating impact on our foreign policy objectives and Ethiopia's development as a robust democracy. And, even if revised and amended, passage of this bill would still send a negative message, that of a government desperately seeking to hold on to power and dismantle any groups that might expose its failures or limitations. We must stand with the people of Ethiopia and with the principles that Americans hold dear.