In Ethiopia, Human Rights and U.S. Regional Security Goals Collide

By Catherine Cheney

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, 2002 (Defense Department photo by Helene C. Stikkel).

July 18, 2012 (World Politics Review) – Twenty Ethiopian journalists and opposition figures accused of trying to topple the government will now spend between eight years and the rest of their lives in prison. As the New York Times reported, these defendants, who were convicted on terrorism charges, were the victims of security concerns being used “as an excuse to crack down on dissent and media freedoms.”
The Horn of Africa country, located between Sudan and Somalia, is seen by the U.S. as a source of stability and as a key regional partner in the war on terror, explained Claire Beston, the Ethiopia researcher at Amnesty International.

“And that is to the detriment of the domestic human rights situation in Ethiopia,” she said. “Those freedoms are being sacrificed for that stabilizing role that Ethiopia is being seen to play in the region, which may turn out to be a very short-sighted strategy.”

In other words, she explained, in Ethiopia, an anti-terrorism law she described as dangerously broad is increasingly being used to silence critical voices and stop peaceful dissent.

Alemayehu Fentaw, an Ethiopia expert who is currently a fellow at the Institute for International Education and a member of New York University’s Scholars at Risk network, explained that the country is the only “relatively stable and militarily strong nation in a rough neighborhood.”

Given its location, Ethiopia is uniquely positioned to neutralize security threats from neighboring Sudan and Somalia, Fentaw said, describing the international concerns that these two countries have sponsored terrorism or provided terrorist groups with a safe haven.

But the problem, Fentaw said, is that the Ethiopian government is using its regional security role and anti-terror legislation to crack down on its opposition.

The recent arrests are not the first example of national security being used as a pretext to crack down, he said.

“State Department reports continue to document the ruling party’s ongoing repressive acts against those who have or are imagined to have voiced opposition to the government,” he explained, mentioning arbitrary arrests, detention without charge and illegal searches, among other abuses. “These reports attest that human rights abuses continued unabated.”

Both experts mentioned the Arab Spring when asked why the Ethiopian government feels the need to dismantle political dissent in the country.

Fear of a possible “Ethiopian Spring,” Fentaw explained, has “resulted not only in the current crackdown on the media and the opposition, but also on the Muslim community.”

“The current Islamic protest against government interference in religious affairs provides the regime a further opportunity to crack down on the largely Muslim-based secular opposition found in much of south Ethiopia,” he said. “What the jailing of the 20 Ethiopian journalists and oppositionists indicates for me is the complete closure of the political space in that country for dissent and the regime’s utter disregard for human rights.”

The fear surrounding the Arab Spring, among other factors has only increased the instances of politically motivated threats, violence and arrests, explained Beston.

Referring to these latest charges, she said “the targeting of these individuals was based on their exercise of their right to freedom of expression in criticizing the government, asking questions, writing articles critical of government and so on,” adding that the criminalization of freedom of expression and association violates both the Ethiopian Constitution and international law.

Both Beston and Fentaw said that the international community must do more in response to these human rights concerns.

The lack of international attention to the deteriorating human rights situation in Ethiopia undermines the credibility of Ethiopia as a reliable security partner, Beston said. And yet, she continued, because civil society legislation is limiting the role that human rights organizations can play in Ethiopia, outside actors must get involved.

“The government continues to commit a range of human rights violations throughout the country with complete impunity, and now there is almost no one left to try and hold the government to account. Those voices have been silenced,” she said. “So the voice must come from outside Ethiopia, from the international community.”

But Fentaw explained that further U.S. involvement would present some challenges.

“Both Ethiopia and the U.S. have had their own, albeit concurrent, legitimate national security interests in Somalia,” said Fentaw. “However, it would seem that U.S. security objectives for the region and human rights concerns for Ethiopia come into conflict.”

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