Remarks for the "Toward a Democratic Ethiopia" Event
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
As Prepared for Delivery
Thank you. I am very pleased to be here today among such a diverse group of activists and scholars committed to strengthening democracy in Ethiopia. I would like to thank the National Endowment for Democracy for organizing this event and for inviting me to speak. The State Department relies heavily on contributions from activists, civil society, and academics. I look forward to hearing your thoughts today as well as moving forward.
Since I don’t know most of you, I’d like to take a few minutes to introduce myself. I was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in August 2012. I’ve worked under the Obama Administration from the beginning, first with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as the U.S. Coordinator for International Assistance to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Soon thereafter Secretary Clinton asked me to design and run a special project called the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. The QDDR, as many of you know, is transforming how the U.S. Government practices development and diplomacy. Most recently, I served as the Chief Innovation Officer for the U.K. Department for International Development, on detail assignment in London. I have worked at policy levels and in the field on security and justice sector reform, rule of law, democracy and governance, economic growth, and human rights. So, I come to you with a broad and global perspective on human rights and democracy. All of this experience has made me a firm believer that human rights should be integrated into all lines of our policy and operations – from security and stability to conflict management, governance, and economic growth.
Today I am going to speak to you about the U.S. Government’s policy towards Ethiopia in relation to democracy and human rights. The U.S. Government is committed to working with Ethiopia – both the government and the people – to strengthen respect for democracy and human rights. Advancing democracy and human rights is one of our highest priorities in our engagement with Ethiopia – and for all of Africa. This discussion today comes at a critical time, with the recent death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the peaceful transition to the leadership of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. It is clearly a time of change in Ethiopia – a time of new challenges and new opportunities.
Inside the U.S. Government, we’re having very productive discussions on how best to address both the challenges and the opportunities. We are committed to supporting Ethiopia in this transition period to remain stable and to take serious steps that advance fundamental freedoms. We have a strong team at the Embassy in Addis and we are all working together to identify opportunities to advance democracy and rights on the ground. We understand this is Ethiopia’s best chance for long term stability and prosperity.
But to take a step back for a minute, I’d like to say a few words about the progress this administration has made on democracy and human rights. President Obama and Secretary Clinton have changed the game for democracy and human rights around the world. They have moved the ball forward to a new era where security, democracy, and human rights are not viewed as competing priorities – but rather as equally important policy objectives that must be advanced simultaneously whenever possible. They have put these priorities at the center of our national security and our foreign policy – as important ends in themselves – not just a means to an end. At the same time, both President Obama and Secretary Clinton have affirmed again and again that we must advance fundamental freedoms, protection of civilians, and democratic governance because they are U.S. Government values. We are at an unprecedented time in history where we are witnessing more transitions to democracy than ever before – most of which are driven by popular demand, sometimes in the face of violent tactics that try to silence those voices calling for change. We see this across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as throughout Africa. Democracy is taking root around the world. Our objective is to help consolidate these gains wherever possible.
Of course, democracy is not just an election. It is the capability of a society – including government, civil society, and individuals – to fully exercise civic participation, freedoms of expression, assembly, and movement. It requires an independent and effective judiciary, civilian-controlled and responsible security forces, and transparent and accountable government institutions – all informed by international human rights law and standards. It requires opportunities for marginalized populations including women, youth, LGBT communities, and disabled persons to participate equally in society, in government, and in all stages of the democratic process – and to benefit equally from economic growth. A robust civil society plays a critical role in the development of democracy. Civil society fosters government accountability, channels citizens’ grievances, and advocates for citizens’ rights. But it is the Government that has the responsibility to its people to effect democratic and rights-based change, to protect all citizens from abuse and discrimination, to provide equal access to justice, essential services, inclusive economic growth, and opportunity for all of its people.
The U.S. Government’s commitment to democratization is detailed in the U.S. Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa published in June 2012. U.S. Government commitment to democratization includes working to promote accountable, transparent, and responsive government; to bolster positive democratic models in the region; to promote and protect human rights, civil society, and the independent media; to ensure a sustained focus on the credibility of democratic processes; and to promote strong democratic norms.
In addition to democratization, the other pillars of the Sub-Saharan African Strategy are to spur economic growth, trade, and investment; to advance peace and security; and to promote opportunity and development. The pillars are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. That is to say that improvements in each individual goal are related directly to improvements in the other goals. This is something I’ll come back to in regards to Ethiopia.
As I’ve stated, the U.S. Government is committed to working with Ethiopia to strengthen respect for democracy and human rights. This includes working to bolster civil society, improve media freedom, expand political space, and support respect for human rights in the judicial sector and security forces.
We are also committed to working with Ethiopia to strengthen regional stability and security as well as to promote economic development. Ethiopia has made tremendous progress in both these areas. As I mentioned, our policy goals are mutually reinforcing. The U.S. Government is working to advance democracy and human rights, regional stability and security, and economic development in Ethiopia all at the same time.
Advancing human rights and democracy in Ethiopia is critical for several reasons. The first reason is that advancing human rights in Ethiopia is part of our effort to support global implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – it is a US national security objective, a foreign policy priority, and a value of the US of America. Second, democratic institutions and respect for human rights are important for ensuring the long-term stability of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a very diverse nation, with many religious, ethnic, and regional groups. Violence is less likely to occur in societies where citizens are able to channel grievances through peaceful processes, and when responsive and accountable government institutions respond to these needs. Finally, responsive democratic institutions and rule of law enhance economic development and regional security.
In Ethiopia, we are faced with a challenge. The principal question is how to work constructively with both the government and civil society to advance democracy and human rights when the government has limited political and civil space. This has included restrictions on civil society organizations, the curtailment of media freedom, and the conviction of journalists and members of the political opposition under the Anti-terrorism Proclamation. We’re particularly concerned about the Charities and Societies Proclamation and the Anti-terrorism Proclamation. Going forward, it would benefit the government to open space for political opposition and civil society development. Not only would doing so help Ethiopia’s citizens fully realize their rights, but it also supports the U.S. and Ethiopian governments’ shared goals of stability and development.
Secretary Clinton has described civil society as that “collection of activists, organizations, congregations, writers, and reporters that work through peaceful means to encourage governments to do better, and to do better by their own people.” Individuals working through civil society organizations advance a wide variety of issues, ranging from the elimination of torture to improvements in their environment.
Ethiopia’s civil society law is highly restrictive. As most of you know, the CSO law prohibits charities, societies, and associations that receive more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign sources from engaging in a wide range of activities that advance human and democratic rights. As a result of the law, civil society activities have been severely curtailed. It is in the interest of the Government of Ethiopia to revise this law so that civil society can operate more freely. Reform would allow citizens to work together to improve their situations, and that of the entire country.
Another issue that the United States Government cares deeply about is freedom of expression. People must be able to express different viewpoints peacefully, and without fear of arrest, harassment, or intimidation. Freedom of expression is critical to the development of democratic societies. It is through the peaceful exchange of ideas that individuals are able to understand differing points of view and reach compromises.
The United States remains concerned about the lack of media freedom in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has convicted and imprisoned journalists, and its media are forced to practice self-censorship. The imprisonment of journalists, restrictions on internet freedom, and censorship have no place in democratic societies. The Anti-terrorism Proclamation should not be used to undermine freedom of expression and independent media. We welcomed the pardon and release of Swedish journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, but remain concerned about those Ethiopian journalists who remain imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression. This includes journalists Eskinder Nega, Woubishet Taye, and Reyot Alemu. We will continue to urge the Government of Ethiopia to release those members of the media who are currently jailed, and to ensure that the Anti-terrorism Proclamation is not used to undermine freedom of expression.
I’d also like to talk about political dialogue. With the upcoming U.S. presidential election, we are having quite a lot of open political dialogue in the United States. Politicians from multiple parties are expressing a wide range of views on topics such as health care, education, national security, and the role of government. The press is robustly covering events so that the public can keep informed. Civil society activists are providing strong analyses of the perceived pros and cons of different policy proposals. This exchange of ideas, involving political parties, the media, and activists, is democracy in action. Republicans and Democrats may not always agree on the best course forward, but the exchange of ideas is done in a peaceful manner that encourages people to participate actively in charting the future of the United States.
Ethiopia is a tapestry of diverse people and the country would benefit from a more open political process, one in which the ruling EPRDF and opposition parties engage in open and inclusive dialogue. The EPRDF currently controls almost all elected positions. Ethiopia will be having local elections in 2013 and elections for the House of People’s Representatives in 2015. These are opportunities for different political parties to discuss ideas regarding Ethiopia’s future. By opening greater space for political dialogue, the government would be developing conditions that facilitate long-term stability. More open dialogue would provide opportunities for persons to channel their needs through peaceful political process, thus reducing the possibility of violence.
Increased space for civil society, media, and the political opposition are all important priorities. However, our efforts toward enhancing democratization and human rights must also focus on the judicial branch and the police. Judges interpret laws and are responsible for ensuring that persons receive free and fair trials. The security sector is responsible for protecting human rights. Efforts to strengthen democracy in Ethiopia would benefit from an increased focus on how the security sector and the judicial branch can support human rights. This stands true not only for Ethiopia, but for countries around the world.
You may be interested to know more about how the United States is promoting democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. We use a variety of diplomatic tools, both public and private. My bureau is responsible for publishing the department’s annual report on human rights practices. The 2011 report on Ethiopia highlighted concerns about the impact of the CSO law, restrictions on freedom of the press, and Ethiopia’s arrest of political opposition, journalists, and activists. Our engagement on the arrests and trials of journalists and members of the political opposition has been very public. We have, and will continue to publically urge the Ethiopian government not to use the Anti-terrorism Proclamation to stifle freedom of expression and association, and to release those persons who have been jailed simply for exercising their human rights. At the same time, we have continued to engage with the government on this issue privately. We have a regularized dialogue with the government on human rights issues, where we raise the concerns I have expressed here, and discuss ways to address them. Our Ambassador and his staff meet with civil society regularly, and attend the trials of activists and members of the media.
To conclude, I want to reemphasize our commitment to working with Ethiopia’s government, civil society, and people to strengthen democracy and human rights. There is an opportunity in Ethiopia at the moment that we all must seize. It is a time of transition, as well as a time of uncertainty. We hope that the future of Ethiopia is one in which civil society is active, the media are free, and individuals are able to express differing viewpoints without fear. Just and democratic countries are more stable than those that are not. They provide opportunities for individuals to enjoy and better their own lives. Going forward, we will continue to work with the Ethiopian government and civil society so that all persons can enjoy the benefits of democracy. Thank you.