Alemayehu G. Mariam and Obang Metho
In all of the excitement surrounding H.R. 5680, it seems we have overlooked some simple but critical questions:
Are Ethiopian Americans the only group in the Diaspora who have the duty to defend
and promote freedom, democracy and human rights in
Do Ethiopians living in
have a similar duty?
Are we all aware that while Armenian Americans were advocating for the Armenian genocide act (H.R. 390) in the U.S. Congress, their counterparts in France pushed and successfully passed in the lower house of the French parliament a bill that imposed severe criminal penalties for denying the occurrence of the Turkish genocide of Armenians at the turn of the last Century?
What is the Significance of H.R. 5680?
H.R. 5680 (Ethiopia Freedom, Democracy, and Human Rights Advancement Act) has been an extraordinary vehicle to create international awareness about the ongoing and unrelenting human rights violations in
While condemning Zenawi and his regime, H.R. 5680 was also Congress’ way of extending a lifeline: “Zenawi, here is $20 million. Take it and do the right thing. Choose the path of freedom, democracy and human rights. Stop your brutal repression. Release the prisoners of conscience. Respect the human rights and civil liberties of your people. Respect your own constitution. Let the free press fulfill its democratic functions. Let your people live free!”
Can H.R. 5680 be Cloned Everywhere?
Like all unreformed and arrogant tyrants, Zenawi and his regime have chosen against their own enlightened self-interest to mount a highly financed campaign to defeat H.R. 5680 using one of the most powerful lobbyists in
How do we respond to an arrogant tyrant who thumbs his nose on his own constitution and international law?
How do we guide a wayward and defiant tyrant find a path to freedom, democracy and human rights?
The answer is simple: Begin cloning H.R. 5680 in the parliaments and legislatures of every democratic country that has an economic or military aid relationship with
Presently, in the peaceful struggle to advance freedom, democracy and human rights in
Needless to say, legislative advocacy for freedom, democracy and human rights in
Some Lessons from the H.R. 5680 Experience
As we encourage Ethiopians to stand up for freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia wherever they may be, we would like to make their efforts a little easier by sharing essential lessons from our experiences in advocating for H.R. 5680. We realize that many of the lessons we have drawn from our recent experiences in H.R. 5680 are too simple and obvious to even talk about in a serious way. The reality is that the lack of attention to those simple facts at the beginning retarded our advocacy efforts later on.
We are also acutely aware of the diverse and complex circumstances in the various Western democracies that could make human rights advocacy in
Lesson #1: You need not remain politically marginalized in the democratic countries in which you live. Be civically engaged at the local level and engage your local parliamentary or legislative representative in promoting freedom, democracy and human rights in
For the past three decades, the vast majority of Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans remained on the political periphery of American society. Few of us registered to vote, and even fewer participated in elections. Rarely did we run for elected office at any level. Few of us engaged in local party politics. Few of us engaged in interest group politics in the American legislative process, and even fewer started grassroots advocacy efforts to push for legislation that could help us in the
We spent a great deal of the past three decades creating and nurturing our own little islands of individual achievement and prosperity in mainstream American society; and where we had a basis for collective action, we were limited to, and mired in, our own ethnic national politics. Often we engaged in “choir politics” and enjoyed preaching our messages only to those who agreed with us, while reserving scorn and contempt for those who disagreed with us. We managed to separate ourselves along ideological fault lines, ethnic and class lines, and mastered the art of political impotence. We would talk, criticize and undermine each other, but when it came to action and producing quantifiable results, we were severely challenged. We also built very few bridges to connect our little islands to important resources in mainstream American society. We let well-intentioned non-Ethiopians speak for us, abut us.
We came of age in American national politics with H.R. 5680, and its predecessor legislation H.R. 4423. Not surprisingly, when the opportunity to work on H.R. 5680 suddenly manifested itself in the aftermath of the May, 2005 elections in
Lesson #2: Narrowly focus on the critical issues of freedom, democracy, human
rights and accountability in
We learned from our experiences in campaigning for H.R. 5680 that it is important to frame your message in the proper political context and clearly communicate our message. Clarifying the context of the issues: In pushing for accountability legislation in your respective countries, you should have a simple message for your lawmakers and parliamentarians. The message should say: Zenawi and his regime should not be rewarded with economic and military aid so long as they continue to flagrantly violate the human rights of their people and suppress their democratic aspirations. If Zenawi and his regime want to continue to receive aid, they must be held accountable for what they do or do not do to advance freedom, democracy and human rights in
Clearly state the issues: The H.R. 5680 experience has taught us that to be effective we must be focused on the core human rights issues of the legislation and create wide public awareness of these issues among Ethiopians, Ethiopian Americans and others in the majority American society. The assumption that most Ethiopians, and for that matter non-Ethiopian supporters of H.R. 5680, share a common understanding of “freedom, democracy, human rights and accountability” is unwarranted. There is little understanding or consensus about these often used terms, particularly when they appear in legislative language.
As you plan out your advocacy efforts, you need to make it part of your grassroots advocacy language from the very beginning that when you talk about democracy in
Similarly, human rights issues should not be discussed in the abstract. Talk about human rights in terms of the need for the immediate release of all political prisoners and universally recognized standards of due process. Talk about the current show trial of the Qaliti defendants. In classic kangaroo court style, the Qaliti defendants are charged with bogus crimes and jailed. But at trial, the prosecution has no credible evidence of their guilt. The so-called court grants one continuance after another to give the prosecution an opportunity to produce evidence. Now the case drags on month after month as government prosecutors run around town manufacturing and fabricating evidence against the defendants. In the meantime, the defendants languish in jail waiting for the fabricated evidence to make it to court. What a travesty of justice!
Talk about the need for freedom of speech and press and the free operation of independent journalists without direct or indirect government censorship, repeal of repressive press laws in the Ethiopian criminal code, freedom from arbitrary arrest and search and seizure so that Zenawi’s goons will not be able to break down the doors of private homes in the dark of the night and arrest people without probable cause or a proper warrant, an independent judiciary that has sufficient institutional integrity to protect the people from a lawless and arbitrary regime, etc. Talk about the need for Zenawi and his regime to respect their own constitution.
Emphasize accountability: Any legislative measure that does not have accountability provisions in it would be a joke. It would be a safe wager to bet that Richard Armey, the highly paid Ethiopian government lobbyist, would be the first to volunteer and carry the flag of H.R. 5680 and personally walk the bill to the floor of the House if we were to agree to removal of the accountability measures. No chance of that! It is very important to stress the importance of accountability provisions in any legislative measures you promote to advance freedom, democracy and human rights in Ethiopia. H.R. 5680 provides some illustrative accountability provisions, but there could be more. But you must be prepared to discuss specific performance requirements on the part of Zenawi’s regime, time tables for implementation of legislative requirements, specific sanctions for noncompliance and plan for other contingencies.
It is also important to understand that there is a ready-made audience for the messages of freedom, democracy and human rights in many Western societies. Take advantage of the reservoir of passion and good will for human rights in your particular countries. Create alliances with local human rights and civil liberties groups. Local activists and human rights advocates can help you advance your cause much further than you possibly can on your own. You can multiply the resources available to you by using the support of other human rights and civil liberties organizations. Make every effort to participate in human rights rallies, conferences, discussions, media events, etc. and every chance you get, give profile to your cause as part of a larger movement.
Lesson #3: To effectively advocate for freedom, human rights democracy in
It would be foolhardy to think that the cause of freedom, democracy and human rights can be advanced in the national legislatures and executive offices of European and other democracies by voicing concerns that echo Ethiopian ethnic politics, or through the singular efforts of Ethiopians alone. There are two principal lessons to be drawn from the H.R. 5680 experience in terms of effective advocacy efforts: First, it is important to engage members and leaders of the majority community. One instructive example in this regard is our experience in
The credibility of your issue advocacy is magnified manyfold when you engage and enlist the support of members and leaders of the majority society, as well as your neighbors, coworkers, classmates and congregation members. Oftentimes, the same message delivered by a leading member of the majority society carries more weight than the same message delivered in partisan advocacy. As we have learned in H.R. 5680, clergymen, local public officials, local business and community leaders, academicians and others in similar positions are given special consideration when they raise an issue with legislators.
The need to involve youth in the struggle to promote freedom, democracy and human rights in
Lesson #4: You need to build an issue based coalition to push for an equivalent of an H.R. 5680.
One of the fundamental laws of politics is that numbers count. Politicians pay attention to a group or cause if they feel the group has the voting members, members who regularly or actively participate in the political process, understand the rules of the political “game” and know how to use their influence to mobilize local constituents. In pushing for an H.R. 5680-type of measure, it is important to build a coalition of existing civic, human rights and civil liberties organizations. The coalition should be open to any Ethiopian civic group or organization, and individuals who are committed to non-partisan advocacy. You should avoid giving the adversary any opportunity to claim that the human rights advocacy effort is sponsored by one or another of its opposing political parties.
There are several advantages to building a coalition with a narrowly defined purpose of promoting freedom, democracy and human rights. First, a narrowly issue- based organization can withstand any attack by the enemies of freedom and democracy. The lessons of H.R. 5680 show that the adversaries of H.R. 5680, including their lobbyists, have been unable to argue the merits of the bill itself. It is rather difficult to argue that Ethiopians do not deserve freedom, democracy and human rights. The enemies of democracy and human rights are at a double disadvantage because they can not defend their dismal human rights record documented in every major international human rights report. Rather, their strategy has been to try and divert the focus of the debate from human rights to such things as terrorism, regional instability and other geopolitical issues in the wider Middle Eastern region. Now they are spreading rumors of war just to divert attention from their daily crimes. The Coalition for H.R. 5680 was able to anticipate early on such a “smoke and mirrors” strategy and took steps to take the wind out of these bogus arguments in the court of public opinion, and in the halls of the United States Congress.
Moreover, by being narrowly focused on these issues and building a coalition around the issues, you avoid problems internal to the Ethiopian community. The support base for H.R. 5680 shows that Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans from every ethnic group and social class and educational background have banded together for the single purposes of promoting freedom, democracy and human rights in
Lesson #5: Do not allow your adversary to define you your message. Define yourself, your message and your adversary.
There are a few things you should expect from the adversary as soon as you begin any legislative efforts aimed at accountability. In phase one, you will most likely see representatives of Zenawi’s regime skulking and prowling about the parliamentary halls and executive offices purveying their usual litany: There is no need for accountability legislation because
In phase two, you should expect them to grovel: If aid is cut off, the people will starve, the economy will tank, the country will be plunged into chaos, and anarchy will take over. The opposition leaders are unreasonable and do not want a negotiated settlement. The sky will fall…. La-di-da…
In phase three, they will deploy their “blitzkreig” strategy of ethnic character assassination: Any effort that aims to ensure accountability is surely the handiwork of malicious Amharas and Derg members who lost their privileged positions and/or disgruntled political operatives who were once members of their party. It is the rich fat cats in the West who use their money and influence in a conspiracy to destabilize the country and effect a coup from abroad and regain power. Zenawi is a true democrat and civil libertarian but his efforts are undermined by hardliners in his party. He should be given a chance to correct things. In their last act, they will manufacture a necessity to divert attention as they did with the terrorism issue in the U.S. Congress.
Don’t fall for their diversionary tricks. Stay focused on your essential message: freedom, democracy and human rights in
It is important to be factual when you define your message and the adversary. Let the human rights reports published by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, U.S. State Department, Genocide Watch and other international human rights organizations speak for you. Cite chapter and verse to reveal the true record of human rights violations of Zenawi’s regime.
Keep in mind that most politicians in the advanced democracies are sophisticated and reasonably well-informed about general world and regional issues and events. They may not be very familiar with specific Ethiopian issues, but once you bring the issue to their attention, they have competent staff who can brief them and bring them up to speed.
The adversaries of freedom, democracy and human rights in
Another major advantage of focusing on the core issues is related to lesson #2 above. The issues of freedom, democracy and human rights are universally recognized and widely appreciated particularly in democratic countries. Take advantage of the reservoir of passion for human rights in your countries to advance freedom, democracy and human rights in
Lesson #6: Learn how the legislative/executive policy making “game” is played in your particular country.
Every country has its own unique legislative process. There is no single prescription on the legislative or executive policy process that that applies to all countries. Unlike the
As we have learned from our experiences in H.R. 5680, there is no substitute for a sound understanding of the national legislative process in each country. Our experience in H.R. 5680 has shown us that many supporters of the bill did not have a good understanding of the Congressional legislative process: how a bill is introduced in Congress, the sub-committee and committee hearing and mark-up process, calendaring and debate rules, requirements of bicameral action by the House and Senate and other critical aspects of the legislative process. Without a working knowledge of the legislative process in one’s country, it is unlikely that an effective advocacy campaign can be implemented. It is important to get a complete understanding of the legislative process and practices in each country before beginning to push for accountability legislation.
One can learn a great deal from the recent successes of Armenian French in getting approval of a bill in the lower house of the French parliament that would criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide by the Turks at the turn of the last Century. The first lesson is that Armenians had a larger agenda to push their cause in any country that would provide them an opportunity to do so. They had the Armenia genocide bill (H.R. 390) pending in the U.S. House with commitment by the Speaker that he will take the bill to the floor before the October recess when they scored a major victory in the lower house of the French parliament which approved criminal sanctions for denial of the Armenian genocide. The second lesson is that the Armenian French worked with the opposition socialist party to get their bill passed much to the consternation of Chirac and his conservative allies. Is there any reason why the Armenian effort can not be duplicated for
Lesson #7: Learn the techniques of grassroots advocacy, and teach it to others.
Our experience in H.R. 5680 showed us that many people interested in supporting the bill were not familiar with grassroots advocacy. They simply did not have opportunity to act by themselves or with other individuals to make demands on public officials at the Congressional level. Once supporters were engaged, they quickly learned that grassroots advocacy could be an effective method of getting heard by national policy makers, especially when one does not have $600,000 to throw at powerful lobbyists in
As others contemplate the use of grassroots advocacy in legislative efforts, it is important to understand that grassroots programs or networks need not be huge enterprises. A core group of dedicated individuals in different geographical regions can work together and coordinate their efforts to advance the common cause. Such cooperative action provides the basis for a coalition where independent groups -- Ethiopian and non-Ethiopian -- can ally themselves to push for a common agenda. Grassroots coalitions have the potential to be far more powerful and more skilled than any single organization acting alone. When groups with different and often incompatible agendas create coalition on a common purpose, they often prove to be very powerful. Their alliance sends a powerful signal to legislators and policymakers that they can have the combined impact of their constituents and voters. Try to work with grassroots groups and organizations with “unlike” agendas. You will be able to bring an irresistible synergy to your efforts, and you will be taken more seriously by lawmakers.
Grassroots advocacy requires certain skills in writing letters, email, phone calls and other communications. There are numerous resources online for those interested to learn about them.
Lesson #9: Don’t expect results overnight. The legislative process in democracies
takes time, and expect delays and complications along the way.
One of the frequent questions we are asked by people in campaigning for H.R. 5680 is: “Why does it take such a long time to pass a law that seeks to promote freedom, democracy and human rights in
However, if we objectively look at our efforts in H.R. 5680, we have not done shabbily in getting Congressional action on H.R. 5680. We were able to get the legislation from draft to final committee action in less than 18 months. Compare this to the Armenian genocide bill (H.R. 390), which took nearly seven years, or the Korean bill which took as many years to get to final committee action stage. Any congressional old hand will tell you that we have done a stunning job in expediting H.R. 5680 for final floor action in the House. For the rest, see lesson #10.
Lesson #10: Never, never, never give up or give in. “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.” Keep your eyes on the prize!
The most important lesson of all is never to keep our eyes on the prize: freedom, democracy and human rights in
So, our Ethiopian brother and sisters, wherever you may be,