Testing the waters Washington presses Ethiopia for political reform

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The United States’ State Department annual report this year has toughened its tone in condemning Ethiopia’s record on rights, even Secretary of State John Kerry, grouped the country with Cuba, Belarus and China. This, former diplomats and experts say, is an indication that Washington will be testing the new leadership in Addis Ababa to see if it’s willing to embrace political reforms ahead of 2015 national polls.
Successfully staging the country’s first ever peaceful power transfer, the ruling party has consolidated its control. There is however no sign that the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is heeding Washington’s calls for major reforms. A spokesperson for the PM earlier this week said any legislative or political reforms have to be “organic” and initiated by the government’s own assessments.
Significant shift
Annually compiled by American embassies across the globe, the State Department submits to the US Congress detailed reports of human rights conditions on all United Nations members while those receiving assistance from the US are particularly targeted. Ethiopia, receiving about one USD billion in annual aid from the US, and much more from multi-donor establishments such as the World Bank where Washington holds significant controls, falls among a list of nations which receive stronger scrutiny.
Many governments angrily react to the report. China for instance tries to turn the tables on the US, issuing a report of its own condemning alleged failures of the US government to uphold its citizens’ rights. The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is often tasked to respond to the report, by including the reaction in its weekly report and even  issuing a statement. The latter usually means the government sees a need to send a forceful rebuttal.
When America’s top diplomat John Kerry stood before reporters on February 27th to release this year’s report, few anticipated that he would mention Ethiopia.
The report in its opening global review included Ethiopia, belittling the government’s actions of enforcing legislations that “rapidly shrink civil societies, close independent newspapers, and arrest, harass and prosecute journalists”.
Kerry hailed Eskinder Nega, a blogger the Ethiopian government jailed on terror charges.
“Some of the greatest accomplishments in expanding the cause of human rights have come not because of legislative decree or judicial fiat, but they came through the awesomely courageous acts of individuals,” said Kerry.
“Whether it is Xu Zhiyong fighting the government transparency that he desires to see in China, or Ales Byalyatski, who is demanding justice and transparency and accountability in Belarus, whether it is Angel Yunier Remon Arzuaga, who  sings (raps) for greater political freedom in Cuba, or Eskinder Nega, who is writing for freedom of expression in Ethiopia. Every single one of these people are demonstrating a brand of moral courage that we need now more than ever,” added the Secretary in his first publicly and strongly voiced criticism of the Ethiopian government.
The New York City-based rights group, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says the remarks are “significant”.
“It is significant in so far as Kerry, as the third most powerful official in the government that leads the global war on terrorism, sent a firm message in the clearest way that Eskinder Nega has no connections to terrorism and is in prison for his peaceful exercise of freedom of expression,” says CPJ Africa Advocacy Coordinator Mohamed Keita.
Keita says Prime Minister Hailemariam, after spending more than a year in office, isn’t improving the country’s track record when it comes to the free press.
“The facts speak for themselves: there are more journalists in prison today than there were when the late Meles Zenawi died, and there are journalists still being prosecuted for articles published when Meles was alive. Authorities are still conflating independent journalism and the mildest criticism of their actions with incitement to violence, treason or terrorism,” Keita told Capital.
The State Department report says Ethiopia restricts freedom of expression and association.
Ethiopian security forces reportedly arrest, detain, harass, intimidate and put people on politically motivated trials to stifle dissidence. The report said its sources are convinced that police investigators often used physical abuse to extract confessions in Maekelawi, the central police investigation headquarters in Addis Ababa. Some prisons are described as “harsh” and “life threatening”. According to the report, opposition politicians and journalists are the main target of the government’s crackdown.
Tough Tone
While Ethiopia has never lived up to America’s expectations when it comes to human rights protections, the wording of this year’s report is a tough one, says former American Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn.
“I think anyone who reads the State Department report will conclude it is a tough one,” said Shinn, the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999.
“Washington has for many years urged the government of Ethiopia to improve its human rights record, open political space, and allow for the functioning of a free press.  The question is how hard Washington pushes, how much real leverage it has, what are the foreign and domestic dynamics in Ethiopia that tend to operate against reform, and, most importantly, how willing is the government of Ethiopia to listen,” explains Shinn, now a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Engineer GizachewShiferaw, the leader of the largest opposition, says that he would like the US “to persistently engage” Ethiopia on the reported accounts of the right abuses. Reporting the abuses isn’t enough, insisted Gizachew.
Human Rights Watch echoes the call, claiming that Ethiopia’s “atrocious human rights record” is not getting any better unless donors intervene.
Felix Horne, an Ethiopia Researcher for the group, says “there is a window of opportunity” for donors ahead of the scheduled May, 2015 national elections.
“There is a window of opportunity for donors to push for the opening up of political space in Ethiopia ahead of the critical 2015 elections. Ethiopia depends on incredible amounts of support from Western donors and that support comes with responsibilities including the opening up political space which includes the removal of restrictions on media and civil society,” said Horne.
In an interview with one Amharic weekly, GetachewReda, a spokesman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, downplayed the significance of the latest Department Report. He even labeled the document as the product of people “whose life depends on writing the report”.
“The Anti-Terrorist law was not issued with the covert agenda of muzzling the press. It is a law copied almost verbatim from the legislation of many developed countries passed to control the threat of terrorism,” said the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a recent statement which stanchly defended the country’s controversial legislations.
“The fear that the press will be targeted under anti-terrorist legislation is misplaced and cannot be supported by any cogent argument,” reads the statement,“While attacks on the supposed government attitude towards the private press in Ethiopia continue, the reality on the ground offers a very different picture. The private press in Ethiopia today is witnessing an unprecedented growth in circulation, a sharp rise in the number of professional journalists and in the financial capabilities and organizational strength of the media.”
The best way for Washington to press Ethiopia for reforms isn’t a public scolding, according to the former US top diplomat in Ethiopia.
“The United States and other Western countries should do everything reasonably possible, both publicly and privately, to encourage the opening of political space by engaging in a frank discussion with key members of the government.  I doubt that this effort will succeed through threats and public bombast,” said David Shinn.
Shinn says the main goal of a US-Ethiopia engagement should be “to see registered political parties given a chance to operate freely”.
Despite its latest tough tone that many see as being timed with next year’s national polls, the US seems to be encouraged by the latest political developments in Ethiopia including seeing the return of peaceful demonstrations on Addis streets.
“Although many problems exist and abuses occur, some recent events are encouraging. On June 2 of this year, for example, several thousand demonstrators calling for the release of political prisoners, an end to interference in religious affairs, action on unemployment and corruption, and an end to illegal evictions marched peacefully through the capital, without government interference. This was the first such political demonstration the Ethiopian government officially permitted since 2005,” said Patricia Haslach, US Ambassador to Ethiopia, in her senate confirmation speech.
Stationed in Addis since September, Haslach had vowed that she would “press the Government of Ethiopia to respect the rights of all its citizens regardless of ethnicity, clan, political views, or religious affiliation.”
The fate of Washington’s latest drive is to be seen in events leading to the May, 2015 national elections to which the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia says preparations are already underway.

Kirubel Tadesse, currently based in the U.S., is an Ethiopian political commentator.