U.S. support for brutal dictators likely to backfire: Senator warns
Senator Partick Leahy, Chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, said the White House seems to support just about "anyone who says they are against terrorism, no matter how undemocratic or corrupt. It is short sighted, it tarnishes our image, and it will cost us dearly in the long term."
In the statement, the senator cited serious human rights violations in Ethiopia, including the unlawful incarceration of leaders of the opposition as well as the deteriorating conditions in the Ogaden region.
While welcoming the release of the opposition leaders, Senator Leahy said the political prisoners should have never been in jail in the first place, and called on the Zenawi regime to expedite the resumption of reconciliation talks in an environment of fairness and transparency.
The US lawmaker also expressed his concern over the blocking of food aid to the Ogaden region, and cited a New York Times report which accused the Meles Zenawi regime of diverting millions of dollars meant for food aid and a vaccination program.
Following is the full text of the statement of Senator Patrick Leahy:
Assistance for Ethiopia
After the overthrow of Ethiopia’s brutal former Prime Minister Mengistu, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi ushered in a period of hope and optimism. On May 15, 2005, Ethiopia held its first open multi-party elections. The international community praised the people of Ethiopia for an astounding 90 percent voter participation rate, an encouraging beginning to a new political process. The Ethiopian people deserve a democratic process in which opposition parties can organize and participate, and journalists can publish freely, without fear of arrest or retribution. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the 2005 election was not the turning point many had hoped for.
Early polls suggested the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party would make gains in the Ethiopian Parliament that could threaten the control of Prime Minister Meles’ ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front. These reports were followed by credible allegations of manipulation of the vote-counting process. When the government finally announced results that assured its continued hold on power, thousands of people took to the streets in protest. The police arrested over 30,000 people and some 193 people were killed. Although most of the protestors were released soon after their arrest, 70 opposition leaders and journalists remained in prison.
Following these events, I wrote to Ethiopia’s Ambassador Kassahun Ayele and officials at the State Department to express my concern with the imprisonment of the Ethiopian politicians. Human rights organizations and other international figures condemned the detentions and urged Prime Minister Meles to release them. These efforts were to no avail.
Some detainees remained in jail for over two years before being brought to trial in a manner that was incompatible with international standards of justice. Last month, they were convicted of such vague charges as “outrage against the constitution” and “inciting armed opposition”. They were stripped of their rights to vote and to run for public office. Several were sentenced to life in prison. Nothing was done to prosecute the police officers who fired on the protesters. The situation had gone from bad to worse.
Then suddenly, less than two weeks ago, the Ethiopian Government announced the pardon and release of 38 opposition leaders. I am pleased that Prime Minister Meles heeded the pleas of the Ethiopian people and the international community and released these prisoners. The fact is, none of them should have been arrested or tried in the first place. Their release was long overdue and is welcome.
I hope the government acts expeditiously to release the remaining political detainees, and bring to justice police officers who used excessive force. I also hope the negotiations that resulted in the prisoners’ release will lead to further discussions between the government and the leaders of the opposition, to ensure that their political rights are fully restored and that future elections are not similarly marred.
While this news is positive, it comes at a time when journalists and representatives of humanitarian organizations report human rights abuses of civilians, including torture, rape and extrajudicial killings, by Ethiopian security forces, including those trained and equipped by the U.S., in the Ogaden region.
Congressman Donald Payne, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, and a vocal defender of human rights and democracy in Ethiopia, inserted into the Congressional Record a June 18, 2007, New York Times article that described these abuses.
This situation is also addressed in the Senate version of the Fiscal Year 2008 State, Foreign Operations Appropriations bill and report, which were reported by the Appropriations Committee on July 10. The Appropriations Committee seeks assurance from the State Department that military assistance for Ethiopia is being adequately monitored and is not being used against civilians by units of Ethiopia’s security forces. We need to know that the State Department is investigating these reports. We also want to see effective measures by the Ethiopian Government to bring to justice anyone responsible for such abuses.
Unfortunately, it appears that the Bush administration has made little effort to monitor military aid to Ethiopia. It is no excuse that the Ethiopian military has impeded access to the Ogaden, as it has done. In fact, this should give rise to a sense of urgency. If we cannot properly investigate these reports, and if the Leahy Law which prohibits U.S. assistance to units of foreign security forces that violate human rights is not being applied because the U.S. Embassy cannot determine the facts, then we should not be supporting these forces.
As if the allegations of human rights violations were not enough, the New York Times reported on July 22 that the Ethiopian military is blocking food aid to the Ogaden region. The article also claimed that the military is “siphoning off millions” of dollars intended for food aid and a UN polio eradication program. A subsequent article on July 26 indicated that the World Food Program and the Ethiopian Government have reached agreement, after weeks of discussions, on a process for getting food aid through the military blockade to civilians in the Ogaden region. But the same article also reported that regional Ethiopian officials have expelled the Red Cross.
Mr. President, during the Cold War we supported some of the world’s most brutal, corrupt dictators because they were anti-communist. Their people, and our reputation, suffered as a result. Now the White House seems to support just about anyone who says they are against terrorism, no matter how undemocratic or corrupt. It is short sighted, it tarnishes our image, and it will cost us dearly in the long term.
Prime Minister Meles has been an ally against Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa, for which we are grateful. But there are serious concerns with Ethiopia’s U.S.-supported military invasion of Somalia. It has led to some of the same problems associated with the Bush Administration’s misguided decision to invade Iraq without a plan for leaving the country more stable and secure than before the overthrow of Saddam. Iraq’s partition now seems only a matter of time, and it is hard to be optimistic that Somalia a year from now will be any more secure, or any less of a threat to regional stability, than before the influx of Ethiopian troops.
Ethiopia is also a poor country that has faced one natural or man-made disaster after another, and the U.S. has responded with hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian and other assistance. We have a long history of supporting Ethiopia and its people, and we want to continue that support. But our support to the government is not unconditional. We will not ignore the unlawful imprisonment of political opponents or the mistreatment of journalists. We will not ignore reports of abuses of civilians by Ethiopian security forces.
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