US Congress to Jumpstart Stalled Vote on Resolution for ‘Supporting Respect for Human Rights and Inclusive Governance in Ethiopia’
By Habtamu Dugo
With the backing of Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO) and many members of Congress and Ethiopia’s diaspora community groups, a congressional briefing and a series of meetings have been planned on the last week of January in order to persuade the United States Congress to vote on stalled House and Senate Resolutions focused on human rights and governance. Majority and minority leaders of both houses, a foreign affairs Congressman, Representatives Mike Coffman and Keith Ellison are among key Congressional leaders expected to attend and speak at the congressional briefing on the human rights crises in Ethiopia, according to Sena Jimjimo, the President of the US-based Coalition of Oromos for Human Rights and Democracy. Speakers from multiple ethno-national community organizations are also scheduled to testify at the Congressional briefing.
The primary goal of these events is to “convince Congress to pass the resolution even in the event of Ethiopia’s announcement to release political prisoners,” Jimjimo said. She added that Ethiopia is trying to use the announcement of releasing political prisoners to “erase” the resolutions.
House Resolution 128, which calls for ‘respect for human right and inclusive governance’ in Ethiopia, was introduced in the House in response to massive human rights violations against civilian protesters in Oromia and Amhara states from 2015 to 2016.
The resolution received a wide bi-partisan support and passed out of the Foreign Affairs Committee on July 27, 2017 and was scheduled to be voted on in the House on October 2, 2017. It was removed from the house agenda mysteriously on September 28, 2017 without any announcement prompting human rights groups and community organizations to write and cosign a letter seeking explanations from Honorable Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. The mystery lingered as Speaker Ryan offered no explanations.
The resolution condemned the killings of peaceful protesters and excessive use of force by Ethiopian security forces. It also called on: US Department of State to “review security assistance to Ethiopia and to improve oversight”, USAID to lead democratic reform and the Department of Treasury to apply “appropriate sanctions on foreign persons and entities” responsible for extrajudicial killings. These measures have been unsettling for the Ethiopian regime, which reacted with persistent threats and lobbying.
It’s well known that simple resolutions don’t have the force of law, yet the Government of Ethiopia has been hypersensitive to the resolution and its potential evolution into a bill from the beginning. Resolutions are often expressions of the opinions of Congress and are sometimes understood us as foreign policy advice. Nonetheless, the GOE has waged relentless lobbying campaigns using its own embassy in Washington and the lobbying firm it had hired to stop the resolutions.
Speaking from the House floor on November 1, 2017 Congressman Mike Coffman explained why the resolution was taken off schedule and urged his colleagues to vote on the resolution. “I note that on two prior cases the vote was tentatively scheduled. In both of these instances, it’s my understanding that vote was postponed due to pressure from the Ethiopian government who continues to make promises to curb human rights abuses against their own people, but fail to deliver.” Representative Coffman said, “It’s been brought to my attention that Ethiopia threatened to cut off security cooperation with the United States should we proceed with House Resolution 128.” GoE has taken the resolution that seriously as if it is already a bill with legal force.
Sources say that the GoE is obviously interested in completely derailing or in significantly altering the language of the resolutions to weaken them. “The Ethiopian government has used security and national cooperation as the reason why they (the House and Senate) should not pass these resolutions,” Jimjimo reiterated. “Obviously the Ethiopian government absolutely does not want the resolution to be passed because they know this resolution represents everything they are afraid of.”
Jimjimo mentioned that the GoE uses its own embassy in Washington DC for lobbying purposes “…they go around and contact the offices and Congress and what they do is they request a meeting and invite members of Congress to come and see Ethiopia; Ethiopia is a perfect place and the resolution is actually an exaggeration of minor problems.” Oromo Advocacy Alliance also accuses, the Washington-DC based lobbying firm, SGR, of assisting the Ethiopian government to use “threats and backdoor deals with key Congressional leaders to halt the progress of House Resolution 128.”
A leaked agreement signed by Government Relations and Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United States Girma Birru shows that Ethiopia hired the lobby firm SGR with “a compensation of $150,000/month,” or $1.8M for one year.
While lobbying has contributed to slowing down votes on the resolution, it has also led to putting Senate Resolution 168 indefinitely on hold. Jimjimo explained the process: “In the Senate, the resolution has to pass unanimously so if you have a single person opposing it, the resolution will stay on hold until it dies.”
Senator James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) expressed his unhappiness with Senate Resolution 168 and introduced SRes348, which is a watered-down version highly favored by the GoE. Jimjimo calls Senator Inhofe’s resolution “a copy-paste from the Ethiopian government.”
Senator Inhofe also refused to back Senate Resolution 168 due to personal conflict of interest in Ethiopia and close ties to the GoE. Senator Inhofe was among members of Congress who visited Ethiopia in November 2017 and had talks with high-ranking Ethiopian officials, including former Oromia region security chief and current MFA of Ethiopia Workneh Gebeyehu. “Workneh briefed on the sidelines Senator James M. Inhofe, Congressman John Garamendi and other members of Congress on the current situation in Ethiopia and the efforts of IGAD to achieve peace in South Sudan and Somalia. He informed them about Ethiopia’s impressive economic growth over the past years, calling on American investors to come and invest in his country,” State-run Ethiopian News Agency reported.
This visit came after Ethiopia made threats to withdraw from the regional counter-terrorism coalition as a means of compelling the US Congress to drop the resolutions. During the visit, Ethiopia focused on painting a rosy picture of the country while conveniently sweeping massive rights abuses under the rug. It also ratcheted up security and counter-terrorism narratives to justify rampant abuses.
Events ranging from briefings to meetings with representatives, testimonies, and training in advocacy skills for rights activists—all in three days—are aimed at jumpstarting the stalled process of getting the house to vote on House Resolution 128 and for the Senate to pass Senate Resolution 168. Congressional briefing will be held on January 30th. Activists believe the resolutions will help stop the ever-deepening human rights cries in Oromia and Ethiopia, if they are voted on and evolve into a bill. Jimjimo said, “2018 is the last chance for the resolutions,” failing which the process has to start over at some uncertain point. So persuading Congress to put the resolution back on the calendar for vote is of paramount importance to community groups and rights organizations alike who have already expended a lot of time, energy and resources on holding Ethiopia accountable.
The Oromo Community Organization of Minnesota, Ogaden Community and Amhara Association of America are among diaspora-based organizations expected to testify at the congressional briefing. International Human Rights Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, The Oakland Institute and Amnesty International are also expected to testify.
For detailed dates, times and and locations of the Congressional briefing and other events, visit the Facebook page of COHRD.
The author of the story can be reached at hab.dugo[at]gmail.com